Italy's prime minister has resigned after launching a blistering attack on his own interior minister, Matteo Salvini, accusing him of sinking the ruling coalition and endangering the economy for personal and political gain.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, addressing parliament on Tuesday after it was recalled from its summer recess to decide the future of the 14-month-old government, accused the far-right League party chief Salvini of seeking to cash in on his rising popularity.
In a shock move on August 8, Salvini declared that his alliance with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement was dead and called for elections, but the gambit could yet prove a big political blunder and open the door to power for his rivals.
Politicians from 5-Star and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) are openly discussing forming a new coalition that would push the League into opposition and give Italy a more centrist, pro-European government.
"The interior minister has shown that he is following his own interests and those of his party," Conte told a packed Senate, a stony-faced Salvini sitting by his side. "His decisions pose serious risks for this country."
He described Salvini's actions as reckless and "liable to tip the country into a spiral of political uncertainty and financial instability".
After the Senate debate Conte, who belongs to neither of the coalition parties, handed his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who said he would begin talks with parliamentary groups on Wednesday to see if a new coalition can be formed.
Failing that, Mattarella would have to dissolve parliament, 3-1/2 years ahead of schedule, to allow for (northern) autumn elections.
The consultations with party delegations will begin with minor groups at 2pm local time on Wednesday. Mattarella will hear all the main parties on Thursday, concluding with 5-Star at 3pm.
The PD's leadership is also scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss the prospect of hooking up with 5-Star. The two parties have been bitter political foes for years.
Salvini at times shook his head, rolled his eyes or nodded to League senators as the prime minister accused him of being "irresponsible", "reckless", "alarming" and "disrespectful".
Conte said he was worried by Salvini's threat to call people into the country's squares if his drive for elections were thwarted, as well as his demand for "full powers".
"We do not need men who have 'full powers', but people who have institutional culture and a sense of responsibility," he said in an hour-long speech in which he also denounced Salvini's habit of brandishing the cross at his political rallies.
Touching on a particularly sensitive subject, he also said Salvini should provide explanations over allegations that the League attempted to obtain illegal funding from Russia through a covert oil transaction.
Salvini rejected Conte's comments, saying other parties were afraid of going to elections and losing their influence.
He said his political goal was to challenge the European Union's fiscal rules, which he has blamed for impoverishing the country. Rome should spend at least 50 billion euros ($A82 billion) to stimulate the chronically weak economy, he added.
Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi said he could be prepared to work with the 5-Star Movement if he felt it could lead to having a constructive attitude towards Europe.
"We ought to try and form a government, if it were possible," Renzi told France 2 television, adding that it was important to put aside previous personal attacks upon him made by members of the 5-Star Movement.
Australian Associated Press