One of the most riveting dramas in international politics looks as if it might finally be nearing its climax. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has become ever more tightly enmeshed in a s-x scandal from which it’s hard to see any escape.

Last night Berlusconi came out fighting, arguing again that the investigation was illegal and politically motivated, and promising new laws “to guarantee that a magistrate will not be able to try to illegitimately destroy someone who has been elected by the citizens.”

But as Paola Totaro reports in today’s Age, prominent members of Italy’s establishment, including business and religious leaders as well as president Giorgio Napolitano, are now giving clear signals that they think enough is enough.

Berlusconi has weathered many scandals before, but they have taken a cumulative toll on his support and credibility. The sheer “seediness” (as The Independent put it) of the latest allegations seems to have impelled even some of his usual supporters to start thinking about life without him.

Men at the summit of political power don’t need to pay for s-x; if they pay, what they’re paying for is silence. And in a narrow sense that has worked for Berlusconi, as the woman at the forefront of the scandal, teenage dancer Ruby Rubacuori, sticks doggedly to her story that there was no s-x involved, and that Berlusconi paid her thousands of euros just for companionship.

But with maybe 14 women involved in the now-notorious “bunga-bunga” parties, it was inevitable that someone would talk out of turn, and prosecutors now say that they have wire taps and other evidence to justify a speedy trial after a previous court decision weakened the prime minister’s legal immunity.

Berlusconi described the prosecutors’ tactics as “worthy of an anti-Mafia investigation”, and he probably has a point. For professionals in law enforcement Berlusconi would represent a recurring nightmare; one can easily imagine them reaching the point where they felt any means were justified to finally bring him down.

A politician at his peak and with a solid majority could hope to fight off such an attack. But Berlusconi’s biggest problem is that he was already hanging onto power by only the skin of his teeth, surviving a no-confidence vote last month by just three votes.

And, at 74, it’s only to be expected that his appetite for the fight will have diminished. Indeed, it would not be out of character for him to think this is not such a bad note to go out on: to be remembered for an outlandish amorous escapade, rather than a bribery and corruption scandal or a backroom political hatchet job.

Better still, of course, to lose office on a noble point of principle, but Berlusconi’s career has not really been known for those. That has been a large part of his success: he is no ideologue, but a wily pragmatist who governed from the centre much more than his reputation would suggest.

If this is really the end, there’s no doubt that Berlusconi — for all his sins — will be missed. Italy may not see his like again.