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On a day of high drama, the prime minister tried desperately to portray a man in charge of his destiny. But an attack by a celebrated former anti-mafia judge touched a raw nerve. Antonio Di Pietro made his name fighting corruption in Italy in the 1990s; here he said the vote would mark the end of an empire, and trigger early elections.

It was too much even for such a seasoned campaigner as Berlusconi. As the words ‘Coward!’ ‘Coward!’ echoed around the chamber, Italy’s beleaguered prime minister decided enough was enough, and left.

Broadcast live on television, this will hardly have helped bolster his position. And Di Pietro drove more nails into Berlusconi’s coffin, saying the prime minister would soon be off to somewhere less pressurised, like the Bahamas.

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