A Novice No Longer, Italy's Prime Minister Makes a Mark on Davos

(Bloomberg) -- Making his debut at Davos, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte knew how to turn on the charm -- offering to get Angela Merkel a coffee -- and also pack a punch with a fiery address to the global elite.

A video showed him enticing the German chancellor over for a quick tete-a-tete. “Certainly, that would be fantastic. A coffee is better if an Italian asks for it,” she replied. “So we have five minutes?” Conte asks with a smile.

It’s a trivial enough scene, but revealing too in showing how the 54-year-old political novice, plucked from teaching law at Florence University to head Rome’s populist experiment, has grown in confidence and assertiveness.

When his government was sworn in on June 1, Conte was widely-derided as a puppet in the hands of his deputies Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, who constantly jostle each other to deliver on their costly promises -- and often pull Conte in different directions.

And yet Conte has repeatedly shown his mettle, with the help of establishment figures including the likes of President Sergio Mattarella, a former minister and judge, Finance Minister Giovanni Tria, an economist, and Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi, formerly at the European Commission in Brussels.

‘Very Calm’

It was Conte who managed to persuade populist duo Salvini, of the anti-migrant League, and Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to not only negotiate with the Commission on the 2019 budget, but also to back down on a deficit target.

More recently Conte even dared to challenge Salvini, the most powerful figure in government, to take in several migrants from a ship which had rescued them in the Mediterranean. Salvini has consistently insisted that Italian ports are closed to such vessels.

When Mattarella met Merkel in Berlin on Jan. 18, she told him that she appreciated Conte’s “very calm” style, according to newswire Ansa.

“I focus on him rather than on what individual ministers say,” she was cited as adding -- a thinly-veiled barb at Salvini and Di Maio.

Election Footing

Conte grabbed his Merkel moment in Davos earlier this week, according to La7, to tell her that Five Star -- which first picked him for the premiership -- is very concerned about opinion polls showing Salvini’s League surging in popularity, while Five Star declines.

The surveys, especially in the run-up to European Parliamentary elections in May, have prompted both Salvini and Di Maio to kick-start their campaign with attacks against French President Emmanuel Macron, Brussels, and Merkel herself over issues from migration to alleged Franco-German dominance of the EU.

As Conte fired off the polling figures at her, Merkel just looked serious, and nodded repeatedly. Given expectations that attacks by the populist leaders will intensify in coming weeks, Conte will have plenty more talking to do.

And one big question remains, when a general election does come: will the placeholder prime minister throw his hat in the ring or slink back into academic obscurity?

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.