Key Points:

Incredibly, only 18 months since half the nation was euphoric at getting rid of him, Italy is now considering a reprise for Silvio Berlusconi and his new People of Freedom party after Prime Minister Romano Prodi's resignation.

Mr Berlusconi is suggesting that his dream is to follow the example of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "stay for three years, modernise Italy" before handing over to an "Italian Gordon Brown" - Mr Blair's successor in Downing St.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Berlusconi stands a good chance of returning to power to lead Italy's 62nd post-World War II government.

Perhaps he is viewed as a man for a crisis - for Italy is certainly facing one or two. Even Italians, who rightly pity the way others live, lament the malaise. It does Italy no good to have rubbish piling up in Naples because the Camorra, seemingly involved in the collection, refuses to be bowed.

It hurts Italy's pride to be overtaken by Spain's economy and have its seat at the G8 questioned.

"We have lost a little of our will for the future," admits Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome and Mr Berlusconi's next probable opponent.

Perhaps it is also now fashionable to hanker for "corporate" political leaders - the idea that because billionaire Mr Berlusconi runs a conglomerate, he will run Italy with the same guile and gusto.

Then there is his eccentricity: kissing the bride at a Muslim marriage, calling a German Euro-MP a Nazi and commending his wife's sexual appetite to the Danish Prime Minister.

This is the sort of thing for which he is known as il cavaliere, though the nickname was bestowed by his friend and godfather to one of his daughters, Bettino Craxi, Prime Minister from 1983 to 1987.

When he was first elected in 1994, Mr Berlusconi was already a familiar face in Italian life. He was, as they say, ben introdotto - "well-introduced" - in political circles, but disconnected from political practice. His fiefdom was that of flimsily clad girls bouncing around on TV quiz shows, AC Milan football club and the media empire he had built. But suddenly, "Berlusca" decided politics was for him and established a party out of nowhere, opportunistically named after the football slogan "Forza Italia".

Mr Berlusconi stood, apparently, for nothing; he was the postmodern politician for the consumer age. But how wrong Italy was to think that Mr Berlusconi stands for nothing.

His genius was to get elected on dancing girls and then ensure both that the ancien regime remained intact and that he put himself above the law, which was closing in on him.

Mr Berlusconi was born in Milan, in 1936, the son of a bank official and a secretary at Pirelli tyres, and funded university studies by working as a pianist and crooner aboard cruise ships (he composed an album of love songs for singer Mariano Apicella).

His first enterprise was the construction of a new town outside Milan, "Milano 2". No one knows where he procured the capital, but an encounter with a friend from Sicily is submitted as a possibility, alongside his admission to the P2 masonic lodge, a dark circle connected to the Mafia, right-wing and state terrorism.

With profits from Milano 2, Mr Berlusconi founded the Publitalia advertising company and thence Mediaset, his chain of TV channels, one empire selling to the other.

Mr Berlusconi dabbled in politics only to advance his interests. During the 1970s, anti-monopolies law forbade private television to be national and in 1984 judges closed some of Mr Berlusconi's local stations for showing identical material. Mr Berlusconi called on Prime Minister Craxi - and was later charged with bribing him handsomely - who promptly reopened them by decree and a year later made the decree into law abolishing the restrictions.

Craxi later fled to Tunisia, from multiple corruption charges, and died.

But by then, Mr Berlusconi was off the legal leash and his empire, under an umbrella, Fininvest, comprised 50 magazines, two national newspapers, a galaxy of TV channels and studios, a film distribution network, publishing and advertising empires and AC Milan.

In 1990, working as a correspondent in Italy, I found myself interviewing families who lived in houses built by Mr Berlusconi, read papers and magazines published by Mr Berlusconi, went to work for Mr Berlusconi past advertisement hoardings owned by Mr Berlusconi, after which they watched TV made by Mr Berlusconi and on Sunday followed their team, owned by Mr Berlusconi.

Mr Berlusconi can be all things to all men, master of making the illogic logical. After the accession of Pope Benedict XVI, Mr Berlusconi, with his empire of semi-naked dancing girls, supported the Holy Father, insisting that lay institutions should enforce "family values" and religious devotion.

Out of power, Mr Berlusconi carries the air of a premier-in-exile, but preparations to return are entwined with scandal, such as the recent leaking of wiretaps showing that his Mediaset executives had consulted regularly with counterparts at state-owned RAI channels to manage news favourable to Mr Berlusconi.

But Italy under Mr Berlusconi the businessman did not do what it might have done. The assets of state were not privatised as much as they were in Britain; the Christian Democrat sense of responsibilities of state were, oddly, upheld. Hospitals are generally excellent, child literacy higher than in Britain and street crime lower.

Even the big football clubs are not for sale. Mr Berlusconi has no plans to sell Milan to Texan meat-packers or Russian oligarchs.

Moreover, while England were too bad to qualify, Italy may win Euro 2008, probably why he really wants another stab at power.

- OBSERVER