The leaders of the two largest parties in Italy’s government have thrown their support behind prime minister Giuseppe Conte after the resignation of three ministers yesterday left him scrambling to keep his coalition together.

Mr Conte’s government was plunged into crisis on Wednesday after Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, announced three ministers from his small Italia Viva party were leaving the coalition, blaming dissatisfaction with its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There have been more than 80,000 deaths in Italy since the pandemic broke out last February, the second highest number in Europe. The country is also battling an economic recession.

Following Mr Renzi’s announcement the leaders of both the Five Star Movement and the Democratic party (PD), the two biggest parties in the current coalition, strongly criticised Italia Viva’s decision and said they would continue to support Mr Conte. 

Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the PD, said Mr Renzi had committed “an error against Italy”. “In these hard months Italy has been able to count on the commitment of Giuseppe Conte,” he wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag “forward with Conte”. Vito Crimi, acting leader of Five Star, tweeted the same hashtag and wrote: “In this moment of crisis there can be no other thought than to continue working for the good of the country and its citizens”.

Dario Franceschini, a veteran PD MP and culture minster who has been billed as a possible replacement for Mr Conte, also threw his support behind the prime minister. “Whoever attacks the prime minister attacks the entire government,” he wrote.

Mr Conte, who has been prime minister since 2018 in two different coalition governments, is a former law professor with no political party of his own. Consequently, he cannot automatically count on the support of the PD or the Five Star Movement.

Mr Renzi on Wednesday likened Mr Conte’s handling of the pandemic response to “a reality show”, said he had sidelined the Italian parliament and he criticised the plans for spending money given to Italy from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund. While Italia Viva is small, it commands enough lawmakers in Italy’s upper house to deprive the current coalition of a majority.

Mr Renzi’s personal popularity is low, however. A poll conducted by Ipsos published in Corriere della Sera earlier this week, before his party’s ministers left the collation, showed that just 13 per cent of voters believed he was acting in the national interest. 

When asked in the same poll to choose between Mr Conte and Mr Renzi, 51 per cent of respondents said they preferred the former and 27 per cent the latter, with 35 per cent saying they did not know.

Mr Conte must now attempt to find enough lawmakers to fill the gap left by Mr Renzi’s party. The prime minister is seeking to woo so-called responsibles unaffiliated with the coalition to forge a new parliamentary majority. 

If he is unable to do so, he may be forced to offer his resignation to Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella, the supreme arbiter in Italian politics who has the power to call a new general election. If Mr Conte stepped down, Mr Mattarella would ask the largest parties in the current parliament to attempt to form a new coalition without him.

Mr Conte could also temporarily take over the responsibilities of the outgoing Italia Viva ministers and try to reach an agreement with Mr Renzi to support a new government in some form.

Mr Renzi did not rule out this possibility at a press conference on Wednesday. He also said he did not believe there would be early elections. 

The next general election is not scheduled until 2023 and few lawmakers expect a snap poll to be one of the options considered by Mr Mattarella at a time when Italy is suffering from health and economic crises. Italia Viva is polling in the low single digits in national opinion surveys and would risk wipeout in an election.

Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury department who now runs an advisory company, wrote in a note to his clients that early elections were “technically feasible” but highly unlikely.

In the event that Mr Conte was unable to find a way to forge a new coalition, Mr Codogno said, “President Mattarella may be forced to launch a caretaker government, if healthcare experts suggest that holding elections is not feasible”.