ROME (Reuters) - The spokesman who shadowed former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for almost two decades quit the center-right leader's party on Sunday, a statement said, the latest blow to the media magnate ahead of a crucial European Parliament vote in May.
No one was seen standing by Berlusconi's side more than Paolo Bonaiuti, the billionaire's media gatekeeper and spin doctor during three of his four stints in the prime minister's office.
"It was a difficult decision, agonized-over and long-postponed, but fully motivated for some time by political disagreements and personal misunderstandings that deepened over the last year," Bonaiuti, 73, said in a statement.
"I wish Silvio Berlusconi my heartfelt best, with the sincerity and affection with which I worked by his side every day for 18 years."
Bonaiuti, a senator and former journalist, said that, while he was leaving Forza Italia, he would "stay in the center-right" to "give a hand" to reform-minded and moderate political forces.
Italian media have reported he will join the New Center Right party, a splinter group that broke with Berlusconi last year and now supports Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government.
The high-profile defection of the man who sat next to Berlusconi nodding "Yes" during most of his public appearances is a further blow to the 77-year-old conservative leader, who has dominated Italian politics for the past 20 years.
Berlusconi is poised to begin serving a sentence for tax fraud, probably by doing community service helping elderly disabled people, within weeks. His close friend and business associate Marcello Dell'Utri was arrested in Beirut on Saturday after being declared a fugitive ahead of a mafia collusion verdict due this week.
Since his tax fraud conviction last year, Berlusconi has struggled politically, and Forza Italia, or Go Italy!, faces a major electoral test in European Parliament and local elections on May 25.
Polls put Forza Italia in third place behind Renzi's Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)