SILVIO'S LABOUR LOVE-IN; Silvio Berlusconi and His Billions Exercise a Strange Fascination for Tony Blair and His Lieutenants. but Il Cavaliere's Friendships Have a Habit of Ending Messily, Warns Charlotte Eagar

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Byline: CHARLOTTE EAGAR

It was one of those occasions Rome does so well: a scarlet puddle of cardinals seated at the side of the pine coffin laid on the marble steps of St Peter's. Opposite, beyond the dead pope, sat Il Cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy. But unusually for Berlusconi, he wasn't the centre of attention, or even in the front row. There were various crowned Catholic heads - King Juan Carlos of Spain and the Prince of Liechtenstein - followed by other monarchs and presidents: President George W Bush, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Ciampi of Italy, Berlusconi's adversary. Berlusconi, as Prime Minister of Italy, was five rows back, close to his dear friend, our Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It wasn't a good week for Italy's Prime Minister, who also happens to be its richest citizen. It can't have helped that his party, Forza Italia ('Go for it, Italy' - taken from a football chant), had just lost the regional elections with a staggering 45 per cent swing to the leftish opposition. Nor that the Italian magistrates are once again investigating their Prime Minister for corruption; nor that one of his trusted lieutenants, Marcello Dell'Utri, who headed up his advertising company, Publitalia, for years, has just been sentenced to nine years for aiding and abetting the Mafia. That's politics or, in Berlusconi's case, business, because Berlusconi is primarily a self-made TV billionaire who turned to politics late in life.

But what is extraordinary about Berlusconi's current travails are their links to Britain and the heart of New Labour. The key to the latest corruption investigation is the husband of a Labour minister: David Mills, Berlusconi's London lawyer. The 61-year-old husband of Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is currently under investigation by magistrates in Milan for tax fraud, money laundering and being paid to give false evidence to Italian authorities during an investigation into Berlusconi's affairs in the Nineties. According to documents prepared by the Serious Fraud Office, the Milanese magistrates believe Mills to have been involved in helping Berlusconi launder millions of pounds. From 1992 to 1994, [pounds sterling]34 million in cash was taken out of the Banco Svizzera Italiana alone. The Milanese courts are expected to rule soon over whether Mills should face charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 12 years in gaol.

Mills himself strongly denies the charges.

'It's complete rubbish,' he says. 'The magistrates have the evidence to show it is complete rubbish.

I've said all I want to say on the subject. This is a nightmare for me.'

Berlusconi has known Mills ever since he started setting up offshore companies for Berlusconi's TV empire in the late Seventies.

David Mills loves all things Italian - he speaks the language, owns a house in Italy and is a frequent visitor to the Italian embassy. As a corporate lawyer it is almost inevitable he would have crossed Berlusconi's path.

It would be romantic to think Silvio Berlusconi felt the same way about England. But that isn't the case. Italian government officials can hardly remember the time Berlusconi came to the UK when he wasn't on official business.

'Berlusconi loves to make a big show about how well he is regarded abroad, but he is much more comfortable in Italy,' said David Lane, author of Berlusconi's Shadow: Crime, Justice and the Pursuit of Power.

Berlusconi doesn't have a house in London: he stays at the Italian embassy off Grosvenor Square, or at Claridge's. His friends in England seem to consist of Mills, Rupert Murdoch (who isn't even English and, anyway, they tend to meet on each other's yachts) and, of course, Tony Blair. Blair took his family on a private holiday to Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia last summer.

'10 Downing Street is Berlusconi's best English friend's address,' said an Italian political journalist who didn't want to be named. …