As he embarks on an audacious campaign to become prime minister of Italy for the fourth time, Silvio Berlusconi has a new woman on his arm – a glamorous member of his party nearly 50 years his junior.
Mr Berlusconi, 76, is in a steady relationship with Francesca Pascale, who at 27 is nearly a third his age, supporters of the former premier said.
There had been rumours of the relationship for months, and the pair was photographed together recently while watching Mr Berlusconi's football team, AC Milan.
But the romance was confirmed by one of the media tycoon's most vocal cheerleaders, Daniela Santanche, an MP in his People of Freedom party, as well as the Italian press, with one newspaper describing the young woman as Italy's new "first lady".
"Berlusconi introduces her as his girlfriend, and for me it is a beautiful thing. I know her as his girlfriend," said Miss Santanche.
"Let's say she is a person who is very close to him," said Licia Ronzulli, a Euro MP in his party. "She's more than a friend."
A former shop assistant from Naples, Miss Pascale served as a provincial councillor in his centre-Right PDL party until she stepped down in July.
She was one of the founding members of a support group called "Silvio, we miss you".
She has said that her life revolves around three things – her family, politics, and Mr Berlusconi – and is said to be jealous of the other women in his inner circle, including Mara Carfagna, a glamour model whom he appointed equal opportunities minister in his last government.
Meanwhile it emerged that the former nightclub dancer who is at the centre of Mr Berlusconi's sex trial is in Mexico, having failed to turn up in court on Monday to give evidence.
There had been mystery over the whereabouts of Karima El Mahroug, known by her stage name as Ruby the Heart Stealer, after she was absent from the hearing in Milan. She has since revealed to her lawyers that she is in Mexico with the father of her baby daughter and his parents.
The revelation came amid speculation over whether the trip was paid for by Mr Berlusconi in order to delay her testimony and string out the trial so that no verdict is delivered until after the general election expected in February.
The former exotic dancer told her lawyer, Paola Boccardi, that she will not return to Italy until January, meaning she will miss a rescheduled court appearance next Monday.
Prosecutors allege that she was working as an underage prostitute and that in 2010, at the age of 17, Mr Berlusconi paid her for sex during his notorious bunga bunga parties. He denies all charges.
His prospects of returning to power suffered a blow yesterday when his former allies in the Northern League said that if he leads his party into the election, they will not enter into a fresh coalition.
The anti-Europe, separatist party could attract around five per cent of the national vote, bolstering the 15-20 per cent that Mr Berlusconi's PDL could expect to win, and edging him closer towards challenging the centre-Left Democratic Party, which has about 35 per cent of the vote.
"I'll try to convince him to take a step back (and not run)," Roberto Maroni, the leader of the Northern League, was quoted as saying by La Repubblica. "If I lose with him, we're finished.
"I don't think he'll run in the end."
There are growing calls for Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister who announced at the weekend that he will resign before Christmas, to run against Mr Berlusconi.
The campaign is being led by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the patrician and powerful head of Ferrari, who said he would throw his support behind a Monti candidacy.
The idea is for Mr Monti to lead a coalition of centrist, moderate parties, including Mr Montezemolo's own movement, Italia Futura.