Matteo Renzi to the rescue: can 'Italy's Tony Blair' deliver?

He claims to be outside the establishment - so why did he hold a meeting with the dreaded Berlusconi?

Matteo Renzi

ROME - The 39-year-old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, is poised to become Italy's youngest ever prime minister after being asked yesterday by President Napolitano to form the country's next government.

With blitzkrieg speed, Renzi has shot to the top of Italy's political heap as the latest in a series of unelected prime ministers, each with their own gaggle of gurus and grand plans that tend to make hoards of headlines but little headway.

Known in the Italian press as 'Italy's Tony Blair', Renzi has built an image as the centre-left demolition man, out to dismantle Italy's political caste. Yet while he claims to be firmly outside the establishment, he is surrounded by luxury brand industrialists.

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He's never been an MP and never had any formal governmental experience at the national level, but was a popular and charismatic mayor. With his easy laugh and casual style, he could be spotted riding a bike to work in his signature leather jacket, white T-shirt and jeans.

Two quirky moments from his past are emblematic of his future. As a young man, he had a brief moment of fame after winning £20,000 on Italy's Wheel of Fortune. "I have the solution," he humbly told the game show host. And for 20 years, he was a boy scout, learning all the best ways to Be Prepared, as the motto goes, even in Italy.

Ironically, these are the two questions facing him today: are you prepared and do you have the solution?Italy is a mess. Youth unemployment is at 40 per cent and the recession has lasted for nine consecutive quarters. It is Renzi to the rescue and on Monday he pledged to dedicate "all the courage, energy and enthusiasm that I am capable of".

The to-do list he rattled off during his first speech to the press was sheer audacity: one reform a month. By February, a new electoral law for Italy and constitutional reform. By March, a plan for jobs. By April, reorganisation of the public sector. By May, taxes. Overly ambitious? Or is he deliberately setting himself up to fail so as to trigger early elections in which he'll be conveniently poised to win?

Italians would feel a lot more at ease if this promising new face had actually been chosen by the people via the ballot box. The bottom line is Renzi is an unelected prime minister who engineered the ousting of another unelected prime minister (Enrico Letta) from his own party, who came on the heels of another unelected prime minister (Mario Monti). "I like his positive energy, but how he came to power was a bit questionable," one Roman told me while watching the scene unfold outside the President's Palace yesterday following the announcement of Renzi's appointment. A handful of centre-right protesters shouted "Elections! Elections!"

So why not go to elections? Everyone fears the same thing: the dreaded return of Silvio Berlusconi. Yet some blame Renzi for throwing the notorious former PM a lifeline when he orchestrated a key meeting with the media magnate several weeks ago.

Insiders whisper about Renzi's friendship with top Berlusconi advisors. There is a bit of distrust on both sides of the political aisle: what might he have promised Berlusconi and what will that mean for Italy? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, Tony Blair told the Italian news agency Ansa he thought Renzi "has what it takes" to make change in Italy. It is a gamble, but as the great political philosopher Machiavelli of Florence once said: "Never was anything great achieved without danger."

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