(see related stories)
(ANSA) - Rome, October 22 - Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano on Tuesday played down talk of Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party splitting and said the ex-premier was set to remain a presence in Italian politics for some time to come.
The centre-right PdL looked on the brink of breaking up earlier this month when Alfano, the party secretary, led a rebellion that forced Berlusconi to back down on a bid to scupper Premier Enrico Letta's grand-coalition government.
Pro-government doves and Berlusconi loyalist hawks, who encouraged the ex-premier to try to sink the executive in the fallout of the supreme court's decision to uphold a tax-fraud conviction against him in August, have since been mending fences.
But big differences in the party re-emerged this week when a group of pro-government PdL lawmakers issued a statement chastising other party members for undermining the administration with criticism of its 2014 budget bill.
Despite the tension, Alfano said Tuesday that the formation of a breakaway group was not on the cards.
"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 Letta's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) said it was intent on backing a move to have the 77-year-old media magnate stripped of his Senate seat after the tax-fraud conviction, on the basis of a 2012 anti-corruption law.
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 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".