Centre-right ministers have resigned from Italy's coalition government, unleashing a fresh political crisis, after what Prime Minister Enrico Letta called a "crazy act" of encouragement by their leader, Silvio Berlusconi.
All five ministers of the People of Freedom (PDL) party took the decision on Saturday at Berlusconi's urging, said Angelino Alfano, Italy's deputy premier and PDL party secretary.
The flamboyant former prime minister had dismissed as "unacceptable" a demand by Mr Letta on Friday for parliament to express support for the government next week, in a bid to end a crisis that has driven the bickering ruling coalition to the brink of collapse.
Mr Letta's government was cobbled together following a two-month stand-off after an inconclusive general election in February. The government has launched major reforms, but has been hobbled by the tensions.
Mr Letta, of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), has won the confidence of financial markets by managing to keep together the improbable right-left coalition. But a brewing revolt among Berlusconi's backers boiled over on Thursday when they threatened to resign over the media mogul's legal problems. A Senate committee was preparing to vote on whether to eject Berlusconi, 76, from the chamber after he was sentenced to a year in prison for tax fraud, a ruling that was upheld by Italy's top court in August.
His allies said the vote would be the ultimate consequence of a long-running left-wing plot aimed at destroying his political career.
On Friday Mr Letta told a cabinet meeting, tasked with approving measures to rein in the budget deficit – including a rise in the value added tax to 22 per cent – that no further legislation would be enacted until the political crisis was resolved.
In encouraging the PDL ministers to resign, Berlusconi said they should not be "complicit in the latest vexation imposed on Italians by the left".
Berlusconi is to serve the sentence at home or by doing community service. But he will henceforth be ineligible for public office.