The Search for a British 'Super Mario'

15/11/2011 23:48 GMT | Updated 15/01/2012 10:12 GMT

For decades British politicians have enjoyed jokes at the expense of their Italian counterparts.

Rattling through governments at an alarming rate, post-1945 politics in Italy has been as volatile as it has shambolic.

That the term in office of Silvio Berlusconi, a man whose various interests conflict so badly they probably need Relate to step in, should have represented something of a period of stability, was as damning an indictment of Rome's legislature as can be imagined.

Now Berlusconi has gone, and in his place as prime minister designate stands the economist 'Super' Mario Monti, drafted in as an apolitical figure to general acclaim and with a very specific job.

Monti is not there to deliver a manifesto nor to ensure his own re-election, but to steer the Italian economy through a crisis not entirely of Berlusconi's making, but from which the old stager was deemed incapable of emerging unscathed.

The whole affair doesn't exactly reflect well on Italian governance, but the very existence of Monti, and others such as Lamberto Dini who took on a similar role in the 1990s, could be seen as evidence that in some regards, the Italian system functions better than our own.

Just imagine, 18 months or two years down the line, the UK has entered a double-dip recession, its credit rating downgraded, the government's credibility shot.

The fact two of the three main parties were at the scene of the crime would leave both likely to suffer in the polls, yet Labour may not by then have remade its case on the economy to the British people.

As the markets exact a heavy toll on Britain and a fragile Eurozone hoovers up available sources of external credit, public opinion becomes fragmented.

A general election is not scheduled until 2015 and an earlier poll is wanted by nobody except fringe parties sensing the chance to gain a foothold in Parliament.

Amid worsening strikes and public unrest a kind of national government is called for, led by a Monti-esque figure around whom all parties can coalesce in a bid to repair the country's shattered global reputation.

The problem is, no such figure exists.

Decades of one-party government have entrenched factionalism among MPs, even those whose core principles are some way from their party's current direction.

No current MP stands convincingly above the fray of tribalism.

Once, Vince Cable might have fit the bill. His central role in the coalition cabinet has put paid to that. Ken Clarke and Frank Field have many admirers across the floor of the house, but support from key sections of their own benches would be sorely lacking.

In the Lords there are too few figures with the national profile and experience to take on the role, and again, even many crossbenchers would be compromised by perceived party loyalties.

Monti made his name as an EU commissioner, appointed variously by parties of left and right (including the first Berlusconi government).

British commissioners past and present have tended to be rather more overtly political appointments. It's hard to imagine Tories rallying behind Prime Minister Mandelson or Kinnock, and while Baroness Ashton and Chris Patten may inspire less partisan dislike, neither have the requisite economic or leadership experience.

Leon Brittan, a former commissioner and at 72 now acting as a trade advisor to the coalition, would be a more interesting proposition but again it is difficult to see how a member of Mrs Thatcher's cabinet could ever be accepted by Labour.

Going further back in British political history, there are few survivors of the maelstrom from Britain's darkest post-war financial period in the 1970s. Aged 94 at the time of writing, former Labour Chancellor Lord Healey would be 12 years older even than the 'Grand Old Man', William Gladstone, when he assumed office for the fourth time in 1892.

We're not quite ready for a nonagenarian Prime Minister, and such is Britain's obsession with youth in the post-Blair era that even Monti, at 68, might be considered past it at Westminster.

In our apocalyptic scenario we may need to look outside Westminster and Brussels to find a figure who could lead the country until at least the 2015 election.

MPs might not have to travel far and wide though - a few stops on the Circle Line would take them to Threadneedle Street, and the offices of Mervyn King.

Having had disputes with Chancellors from Geoffrey Howe to Alistair Darling, the Bank of England's governor is a veteran negotiator and famously tough to pin down.

Since the coalition was formed he has been criticised for supporting austerity measures, yet during the Labour years Sir Mervyn was fulsome in his praise of Gordon Brown's chancellorship.

Astute and capable of sensing the direction of the political wind before many politicians themselves, Alistair Darling's depiction in his memoirs of Sir Mervyn as an opponent of the 2008 bank bailouts may also prove significant.

Impossible? Perhaps. But one day the British party system might just find it needs its own Super Mario. Having singularly failed to produce a contender of their own, they might just turn to 'Super Mervyn.'