Silvio Berlusconi can still count on party loyalists to support him, even after being ridiculed in the media for calling himself a “spare time prime minister” while chatting to an alleged prostitute and arranging business contacts for a pimp.

“The prime minister has no wish to resign,” Angelino Alfano, secretary-general of the ruling centre-right People of Liberty party, declared on Sunday as opposition leaders called for a new government to steer Italy out of financial crisis.

Behind the scenes, opposition politicians admit that so far they have had little success in persuading parliamentary colleagues to abandon their 74-year-old leader, despite the public humiliation of having transcripts of his sometimes lurid telephone conversations – which were intercepted by magistrates – plastered across national newspapers. Mr Berlusconi has not denied that the conversations took place.

Opposition parliamentarians said discussions had included the possibility of arranging a “safe passage” for Mr Berlusconi that would somehow guarantee him immunity from imprisonment, but that he had rejected such proposals.

“It would take only 10 deputies to desert Berlusconi to bring him down, but they don’t have the guts,” one opposition member of the lower house told the Financial Times, in part blaming the electoral law that gives party leaders rather than voters the power of deciding who is voted into parliament on lists of candidates.

According to intercepts released by prosecutors, Gianpaolo Tarantini – a prosthetics businessman who has admitted supplying prostitutes to Mr Berlusconi and others – first wanted to get on the People of Liberty ticket to become a member of the European parliament.

He later shifted his attention towards obtaining personal introductions from the prime minister to key officials and companies with the aim of winning public sector contracts.

Two senior officials of Finmeccanica, a state-controlled industrial conglomerate, have stepped down following the investigations.

“I am a prime minister in my spare time,” Mr Berlusconi laughs in a conversation with an alleged prostitute, before she passes the phone to Mr Tarantini to discuss the three of them taking a state flight from Rome to Milan.

Prosecutors in Bari are seeking to press charges against Mr Tarantini and seven others accused of organising prostitutes with the aim of winning public sector favours. Mr Tarantini, a convicted drugs dealer, has already been arrested in a separate probe in Naples following accusations, which he denies, that he blackmailed Mr Berlusconi.

The prime minister admits giving money to Mr Tarantini but denies being a victim of blackmail or knowing that the women who attended his parties, and allegedly had sex with him, were prostitutes.

With Italy under severe pressure from debt and equity markets, the centre-right government was given a slight breathing space from Moody’s rating agency, which had been widely expected to downgrade Italy’s credit status over the weekend. Instead Moody’s said it would take up to another month to conclude its review.

At the same time Moody’s noted “the increasingly challenging economic and financial environment and fluid political developments in the euro area”. Some analysts speculated that Moody’s was torn between downgrading Italy by one notch, and thus coming into line with other major rating agencies, or by two.

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