(By Denis Greenan).
(ANSA) - Rome, October 22 - The secretary and No.2 in Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party on Tuesday quashed speculation fresh strains in the centre-right group might lead to a formal split and said the convicted media-magnate-turned politician's 20-year dominance of conservative politics was far from over.
Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, long dubbed Berlusconi's dauphin, led an unprecedented mutiny against his sponsor earlier this month to save Italy's left-right government from the three-time premier's bid to sink it because of Premier Enrico Letta's Democratic Party (PD) insistence on voting the PdL leader out of the Senate after a tax-fraud conviction.
As well as forcing Berlusconi into an embarrassing last-minute U-turn over the crunch confidence vote, the face-off between loyalist hawks and pro-government doves brought the PdL to the brink of a break-up.
Strenuous unity talks averted that and the two factions have since been mending fences.
But tempers frayed again Monday after hawkish criticism of leading dove, Institutional Reform Minister Gaetano Quagliarello, accused of laying the groundwork for a future more moderate party, and amid bickering over Letta's divisive 2014 budget.
Some 24 PdL Senators called on the party to stop sniping against the government and put its full weight behind it.
This led to media predictions that a splinter group was once more forming, with Alfano at the helm.
But the PdL secretary crisply denied this Tuesday.
Alfano dismissed the split talk as media rumours and reaffirmed his allegiance to Berlusconi, saying the charismatic leader was set to remain an influential presence in Italian politics for some time to come.
"Up to now, only the newspapers have talked about a split, I've never mentioned the word," Alfano said on Italian radio.
"I'll work for unity around Berlusconi and that is the intention of many of us".
Berlusconi's bid to torpedo the government came after the PD said it was intent on backing a move to have the 77-year-old media magnate stripped of his Senate seat after the four-year tax-fraud conviction, on the basis of a 2012 anti-corruption law.
That law was passed with PD and PdL backing to meet public demands to clean up politics after a spate of cross-party funding scandals which led, most prominently, to the resignation of the PdL governors of Lazio and Lombardy.
Alfano moved to build bridges with Berlusconi loyalists at the weekend when he called on the PD and the whole of parliament to review its position on the anti-corruption law, which the PdL says is being applied retroactively, and therefore allegedly against the Italian Constitution, in this case.
The floor of the Upper House is expected to vote on ejecting Berlusconi next month.
Alfano reiterated that, even if it votes in favour, Italian politics' dominant figure of the last two decades will not be a spent force.
"Berlusconi's two decades are not over at all, because it's up to the voters to establish whether his time is over," Alfano said.
"I have strong feelings of affection for Berlusconi, a very strong personal and political bond, and profound esteem".
Berlusconi has filed to serve the one remaining year of his fraud conviction, cut because of an amnesty, doing community service.
He has had several offers from charities including one that helps prostitutes leave sex work and find other jobs.
The ex-premier is appealing a seven-year conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute called Ruby and abusing his office as premier to spring her from a police station on an unrelated theft allegation, claiming she was the niece of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
That conviction also handed him a life ban from office.
Berlusconi is also appealing a one-year term for an illegal wiretap and faces trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to switch sides.
The ex-premier claims he has been the victim of ideologically hostile magistrates, a charge the judiciary denies.
He has the unanimous backing of the PdL, which has vowed to push Letta into reforming Itally's politicised justice system.
Alfano led public protests against the tax conviction in August, when the PdL rallied in front of a courthouse where some of the allegedly biased magistrates work.
The PD-PdL alliance, cobbled together to end two months of post-election stalemate in April, has survived despite almost daily squabbles, with Letta gaining credit for nurturing and guiding an unnatural political creature.
The latest spat came Tuesday afternoon when the PdL accused the PD of a "putsch" in allegedly unilaterally electing its former chair, Rosy Bindi, to head the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission.
Leading PdL lawmakers said they would boycott the commission unless a consensus chair replaced Bindi.