There are plenty of good reasons to believe that the cities of Milan and Crewe have never been compared in any sort of way. There is objectively little that one of the world capitals of football and fashion and a small railway town in Cheshire have in common. Yet the defeat that Silvio Berlusconi has just suffered in the second round of his own city’s local elections—which was lost to the left for the first time since he entered politics—could be as significant for his government as the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election was for Gordon Brown’s Labour party. For the 74 year-old tycoon who has dominated the Italian political scene since 1994, the endgame could really be in sight.
The comparison with Crewe is not just for the size of the swing. The disastrous campaign the Italian centre-right orchestrated in the run-up to the Milan vote was the mirror image of the much mocked attempt by the Labour party to scaremonger Cheshire electors by bringing in top-hat dressed campaigners to mimic the Conservative candidate. As I was strolling through the streets in Milan last Thursday, a shabby guy in his early thirties, wearing distinctively scruffy clothes, approached me to ask me to vote for the candidate from the centre-left. “Milan will become like Amsterdam,” he announced, “my Roma relatives and I will be ruling the city.” This might have been his genuine belief, but, in all likelihood, he was part of a group of actors spotted in various parts of the city in the days preceding the election. Their role—as in the case of the toffs sent around Crewe and Nantwich—was allegedly to stir up fear among the Milanese electorate.
Just like in Crewe and Nantwich, this negative campaign backfired. Giuliano Pisapia, a soft-spoken lawyer from the left, beat the incumbent major, Letizia Moratti, by ten percentage points. This victory was matched by other equally surprising ones elsewhere. In the city of Naples a former prosecutor, Luigi De Magistris, trounced by 30 percentage points the centre-right candidate, running an effective campaign on the need to restore the rule of law in a city which is as tainted by crime as it is by rubbish. The capital…