On 20 August 2019, Conte offered to resign as Prime Minister when the League filed a motion of no confidence in the coalition government. Subsequently, the M5S and the centre-left Democratic Party agreed to form a new government, with Conte remaining as Prime Minister. In the process, Conte became the first Italian Prime Minister to lead separate governments with both right-wing and left-wing coalition partners.
Conte has often been nicknamed "the lawyer of the people" (l'avvocato del popolo), as he also defined himself during his first speech as prime minister.
On 9 May after weeks of political deadlock and the failure of various attempts of forming cabinets both between M5S–Centre-right and M5S–Democratic Party, Di Maio and Salvini responded to President Sergio Mattarella's ultimatum to appoint a neutral technocratic caretaker government by officially requesting that he allow them 24 more hours to achieve a governing agreement between their two parties. Later that same day in the evening, Silvio Berlusconi publicly announced Forza Italia would not support a M5S–League government on a vote of confidence, but he would still maintain the centre-right alliance nonetheless, thus opening the doors to a possible majority government between the two parties.
On 13 May, M5S and League reached an agreement in principle on a government program, likely clearing the way for the formation of a governing coalition between the two parties, but could not find an agreement regarding the members of a government cabinet, most importantly the Prime Minister. M5S and League leaders met with PresidentSergio Mattarella on 14 May to guide the formation of a new government. On their meeting with President Mattarella, both parties asked for an additional week of negotiations to agree on a detailed government program and a Prime Minister to lead the joint government. Both M5S and the League announced their intention to ask their respective members to vote on the government agreement by the weekend.
On 21 May, Conte was proposed by Di Maio and Salvini for the role of Prime Minister in the 2018 Italian government, despite reports in the Italian press suggesting that President Mattarella still had significant reservations about the direction of the new government. On 23 May, Conte was invited to the Quirinal Palace to receive the presidential mandate to form a new cabinet. In the traditional statement after the appointment, Conte said that he would be the "defense lawyer of Italian people".
Conte during a press conference at the Quirinal Palace, after receiving the task of forming a new cabinet
On 27 May, Conte renounced his office due to contrasts between Salvini and President Mattarella. Salvini proposed the university professor Paolo Savona as Minister of Economy and Finances, but Mattarella strongly opposed him, considering Savona too Eurosceptic and anti-German. In his speech after Conte's resignation, Mattarella declared that the two parties wanted to bring Italy out of the Eurozone and as the guarantor of the Italian Constitution and the country's interest and stability he could not allow this.
Cottarelli was expected to submit his list of ministers for approval to President Mattarella on 29 May. On that and the following day, he held only informal consultations with the President, waiting for the formation of a "political government". Meanwhile, Salvini and Di Maio announced their willingness to restart the negotiations to form a political government and Giorgia Meloni, leader of FdI, gave her support to the initiative. On 31 May, M5S and the League declared of having reached an agreement about forming a new government without Paolo Savona as Finance Minister (he would become Minister of European Affairs instead) and with Conte at its head.
The coalition of the two populist parties which Conte led was also known as Government of Change, thanks to a document that summarized the electoral programmes of the two parties, which was called "Contract for the Government of Change".
The Senate approved the confidence vote with 171 votes in favor and 117 against, with 25 abstentions. The cabinet was supported by M5S, Lega, two senators from Associative Movement Italians Abroad (MAIE) and two independents while the Democratic Party (PD), Forza Italia (FI), Free and Equal (LeU) and other small leftist parties voted against it. The far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) and other ten independent senators abstained. On the following day, he received 350 votes in favor out of 630 in the Chamber of Deputies, 236 votes against and 35 abstained. As in the Senate, PD, FI and LeU voted against the government while FdI abstained. Besides M5S and League, Conte received two votes from independent deputies and one vote from Vittorio Sgarbi, a notable and controversial member of Forza Italia who has always heavily criticised the M5S, but decided to support the cabinet in respect of Salvini and with the hope that a M5S government could lead toward their failure.
On 5 February 2019, Conte became acting Minister of European Affairs after the resignation of Paolo Savona, who was elected President of the Companies and Exchange Commission (CONSOB). Conte has since shared his thoughts about what he predicts the Italian economy will look like in 2019. Despite Europe at high risk of a recession and Italy currently in a recession, Conte thinks that the Italian economy could grow up to 1.5%. Despite Conte's beliefs, however, The Bank of Italy says that the economy will only grow to 0.6% in 2019.
Conte announcing his resignation to President Mattarella
In August 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Salvini announced a motion of no confidence against Conte, after growing tensions within the majority. Many political analysts believe the no confidence motion was an attempt to force early elections to improve Lega's standing in Parliament, ensuring Salvini could become the next Prime Minister. On 20 August, following the parliamentary debate at the Senate, in which Conte harshly accused Salvini of being a political opportunist who "had triggered the political crisis only to serve his personal interest" and stated "this government ends here", the Prime Minister resigned his post to President Mattarella.
However, during the round of the so-called consultations between Mattarella and the parliamentary groups, a possible new majority emerged, between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. On 28 August, PD's leader Nicola Zingaretti announced at the Quirinal Palace his favorable position on keeping Giuseppe Conte at the head of the new government, and on same day, Mattarella summoned Conte to the Quirinal Palace for 29 August to give him the task of forming a new cabinet. On 4 September, Conte announced the ministers of his new cabinet, which was sworn in at the Quirinal Palace on the following day. On 9 September 2019 the Chamber of Deputies granted the confidence to the government with 343 votes in favour, 263 against and 3 abstentions. On 10 September 2019, in the second vote of confidence in the Senate, 169 lawmakers voted in favour of his government and 133 against.
On 16 September, after few days from the investiture vote, in an interview to la Repubblica, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced his intention to leave the PD, launching a new centrist and liberal party named Italia Viva (IV). In the interview he confirmed also the support to Conte's government. Two ministers and one undersecretary followed Renzi in his new movement.
One of Conte's main proposals was the scheduled reform of the Italian tax system, mainly promoted by the League and characterized by the introduction of flat taxes for businesses and individuals, with a no-tax area for low-income households and some small corrections to keep some degree of tax progression as required by the Italian Constitution. The government stressed that they will find the funds to implement it through the so-called "fiscal peace", that is a condonation. However, many important economists[who?] and newspapers like Il Sole 24 Ore denounced that the condonation could not finance all the new tax system based on flat tax.
In 2018, Conte's first government, introduced a flat tax with a 15% rate, applied to small entrepreneurs and self-employed with an amount of annual revenues inferior to €65,000. Despite the so-called "flat regime" was a proposal of the right-wing League, it was confirmed also by Conte's second government, with the centre-left.
During his first cabinet, his government rolled out the so-called "citizens' income" (Italian: reddito di cittadinanza), a system of social welfare provision that provides a basic income and assistance in finding a job in order to help poor people and families. The income is set to a maximum of €780 per month, and in its first year the program has almost 2.7 million applications. The bill, which was heavily criticized by opposition, was later confirmed by Conte's second cabinet.[dubious – discuss]
During Conte's governments, more severe punishments for tax dodgers, which are a major problem in Italy, had been approved. With the 2020 financial bill, the government introduced a bill which provided prison for "great tax dodgers".
In September 2019, at the head of his second government, Conte launched the so-called "Green New Deal", named after the analogous US proposed legislation that aimed to address climate change and economic inequality. In the same period, he praised students who protested against climate change, stating: "The images of the squares of the Fridays for Future are extraordinary, with so many young people participating with such passion. From the government there is the utmost commitment to translate this request for change into concrete solutions. We all have a great responsibility."
In January 2020, the cabinet increased to €100 per month the so-called "Renzi bonus", a monthly allowance introduced by Matteo Renzi's government in 2014, recognized to holders of a total annual income not exceeding €24,600. A total of 11.7 million people benefited of the bonus in 2020.
When Conte became Prime Minister in 2018, he acted quickly to deliver on promises to the government's anti-immigration base through strict controls on immigration to Italy. Since 2013, Italy had absorbed over 700,000 African migrants arriving by boat from Libya. During his premiership, Conte and his Interior Minister Matteo Salvini promoted stricter policies regarding immigration and public security.
After Conte's approval on 10 June 2018, Salvini announced the closure of Italian ports, stating: "Everyone in Europe is doing their own business, now Italy is also raising its head. Let's stop the business of illegal immigration". The vessel Aquarius, which is operated jointly by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée and carried more than 600 migrants, was refused a port of disembarkation by the Italian authorities despite having been told to rescue the migrants by the same co-ordination centre. The Italian authority told the vessel to ask Malta to provide a disembarkation port, but Malta also refused. On the following day, the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez accepted the disputed migrant ship. Conte accused French President Emmanuel Macron of hypocrisy after Macron said Italy was acting "irresponsibly" by refusing entry to migrants and suggested it had violated international maritime law.
On 24 September 2018, the Council of Ministers approved the so-called "Salvini decree", which contained a series of hardline measures that will see the Italian government abolish key forms of protection for migrants and make it easier for them to be deported. The decree will also suspend the refugee application process of those who are considered "socially dangerous" or who have been convicted of a crime.
On 23 September 2019, Italy and other four European countries, Germany, France, Malta and Finland, agreed on a draft deal to present to other EU countries on how to manage the migrant crisis and distribute those saved from the Mediterranean. This agreement was considered a win for Conte and his new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese.
Under Conte's governments, the Italian Parliament approved the so-called "Fraccaro Reform", from the name of the M5S deputy who was the bill's first signatory. The reform was finally approved by the Parliament, with the fourth and final vote in the Chamber of Deputies on 8 October with 553 votes in favor and 14 against. In the final vote, the bill was supported both by the majority and the opposition; only the liberal party More Europe (+Eu) and other small groups voted against. The reform provided a cut in the number of MPs, which would shrink from 630 to 400 deputies and from 315 to 200 senators.
After the approval, Conte stated: "The cut to the parliamentarians is a reform that will bring to a greater efficiency of the parliamentary jobs. Now, citizens to be closer to the institutions. It is a historical passage that, together with other projected reform, will be a prelude to greater efficiency of our parliamentary system."
In February 2020, Italy became the first European country and the second in the world for confirmed cases of COVID-19, a virus from China which caused a respiratory disease. In late January, the government banned all flights from and to China, becoming the first European country to adopt this measure. In February and March, over 60,000 coronavirus cases were confirmed, affecting mainly Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto.
On 22 February, the Council of Ministers announced a bill to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, quarantining more than 50,000 people from 11 different municipalities in Northern Italy. Prime Minister Conte stated: "In the outbreak areas, entry and exit will not be provided. Suspension of work activities and sport events has already been ordered in those areas."
Schools were closed in 10 municipalities in Lombardy, one in Veneto and in Emilia-Romagna. In some areas, all public events were cancelled and commercial activities were halted. Regional train services suspended the stops in the most affected areas – with trains not stopping at Codogno, Maleo and Casalpusterlengo stations. Universities in Lombardy suspended all activities from 23 February.
On 8 March 2020, Prime Minister Conte extended the quarantine to all of Lombardy and 14 other northern provinces, putting more than a quarter of the national population under lockdown. On the following day, he announced in a press conference that all measures previously applied only in the so-called "red zones" had been extended to the whole country, putting de facto 60 million people in lockdown. He later proceeded to officially sign the executive decree. This measure was described as the largest lockdown in human history.
On 20 March, the Ministry of Health ordered tighter regulations on free movement. The new measures banned open-air sports and running, except individually and in close proximity of one's residence. Parks, playgrounds and public green were closed down. Furthermore, movement across the country was further restricted, by banning "any movement towards a residence different from the main one", including holiday homes, during weekends and holidays. While on the following day, Conte announced further restrictions within the nationwide lockdown, by halting all non-essential production, industries and businesses in Italy, following the rise in the number of new cases and deaths in the previous days.
On 24 March, in a live-streamed press conference, Conte announced a new decree approved by the Council of Ministers. The decree imposed higher fines for the violation of the restrictive measures, and a regulation of the relationship between government and Parliament during the emergency. It included also the possibility of reducing or suspending public and private transport, and gave the regional governments power to impose additional restrictive regulations in their Regions for a maximum of seven days before being confirmed by national decree.
On 1 April, Conte's government extended the period of lockdown until 13 April.
Since the beginning of his term as prime minister, Conte's foreign policy has been characterized by a lenient approach to Russia. For example, he advocated the repeal of international sanctions against Russia, which according to him damage the Italian economy. He also considered Russia a strategic partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism. However, Conte stressed that under his leadership Italy will remain an active member of NATO and a close ally of the United States.
On 22 March 2020, after a phone call with Conte, Russian president Vladimir Putin arranged the Russian army to send military medics, special disinfection vehicles and other medical equipment to Italy, which was the European country hardest hit by coronavirus.
Giuseppe Conte with troops in 2019
During an interview in 2018, Conte said he used to vote for the left before approaching the M5S during the late 2010s. He also added that today "the ideological schemes of the 20th century are no longer adequate to represent the current political system" and it should be "more important and correct to evaluate the work of a political force on how it is positioned on the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms".
In his inaugural speech at the Senate on 5 June 2018, in response to attacks on government political forces accused of being populist and anti-establishment, Conte replied that "if populism is the attitude of the ruling class to listen to the people's needs [...] and if anti-establishment means aiming at introducing a new system able to remove old privileges and encrusted power, well, these political forces deserve both these epithets".
He also opposed the "hypertrophy of Italian laws", advocating the repeal of useless laws and supported a simplification of bureaucracy. Conte strongly opposed the school reform legislation promoted by Matteo Renzi's government in 2015, known as "The Good School", which he said must be completely revised.
Giuseppe Conte married Valentina Fico, a lawyer from Rome and daughter of a former director of the Santa Cecilia conservatory. They have a child, Niccolò, born in 2007. However, they divorced after a few years. Conte is currently engaged with Olivia Paladino (born 1979), daughter of the Roman entrepreneur Cesare Paladino and the Swedish actress Ewa Aulin.
The following day, the Associated Press reported in an article published also by The New York Times that the NYU spokeswoman added that "while Mr. Conte had no official status at NYU, he was granted permission to conduct research in the NYU law library" during the period listed in his official curriculum vitae. Similarly, the Duquesne University of Pittsburgh and the University of Malta found no record of him in their archives, although it was confirmed that Conte held lectures at the old university building in Valletta, Malta, for the Foundation for International Studies.Yale University, contacted by another newspaper, confirmed that he was a visiting scholar there for three months.
Moreover, Conte stated in his CV that he had worked for his legal studies at the Kulturinstitut in Vienna, Austria, but this is a language school, not a law school.