ROME (Reuters) - League leader Matteo Salvini is in danger of losing his crown as the undisputed head of Italy's centre-right bloc, a prospect that could destabilise or eventually even upend Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government of national unity.
Under Salvini's frenetic command, the League emerged as Italy's most popular party three years ago and looked likely to dominate the political landscape for the foreseeable future.
However, a series of missteps has eroded its advantage and current polling trends suggest the League will be overtaken in the coming months by its ally, the far-right Brothers of Italy party led by Giorgia Meloni.
Italy's three-party conservative bloc, which includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia! (Go Italy!), has always said that whoever wins most votes in the case of electoral victory can decide who should be prime minister.
This means Meloni might find herself in pole position to lead the country after a parliamentary election due anytime between early 2022 and mid-2023 -- a possibility that might alarm Brussels, given her steely nationalist credentials.
Her relentless rise is also rattling the League.
While the League and Forza Italia joined Draghi's broad national unity government in February, the Brothers of Italy refused. The three parties have nonetheless maintained their alliance as Italy's election law favours such groupings, but Meloni now stands out as de facto leader of the opposition.
This has bolstered her image as a principled politician unwilling to compromise her conservative ideals.
"From the point of view of consensus in the short term, we knew this would cost us. Success in the medium term depends on how much we can solve people's problems," said Edoardo Rixi, a senior League lawmaker in the lower house of parliament.
Looking to counter Meloni, Salvini is battling to maintain a distinctive voice within the government -- a stance that is putting him at odds with his disparate coalition partners and could yet hinder Draghi's efforts to introduce swift, wide-ranging reform.
"Salvini is trying to walk a tightrope and it is very complicated," said Massimiliano Panarari, a strategy and communications consultant who teaches at Mercatorum University.
"With Meloni, he is facing a classic problem of populism and extreme forms of politics. There is always someone more right wing, more left wing, or more populist than you."
Meloni has said Brothers of Italy would defend "God, fatherland and family" if it takes power, echoing an old motto of the fascist party. Her party is anti-immigrant and has promised measures to boost the birth rate to avoid any need for migrant workers in the future.
An opinion poll in Corriere della Sera newspaper this month showed the League on 21.9% against 23.5% at the start of 2021 and 32% in early 2020, while the Brothers of Italy was on 18.9%, up from 15% in January and 12% at the beginning of 2020.
The same survey showed that Meloni, the only woman to lead a mainstream party in Italy, had an approval rating of 37, behind only ex-prime minister Giuseppe Conte. Salvini was tied for fourth place with a rating of 30, down from 39 a year ago.
The media-savvy Meloni has made life tough for Salvini since he hooked up with Draghi, denouncing government actions unpopular with rightist voters and portraying herself as the sole defender of conservative values.
Last month, her party called a no-confidence vote in leftist Health Minister Roberto Speranza over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more people in Italy than anywhere else in Europe, bar Britain.
A glum Salvini was forced to endorse the minister, whom he had previously denounced as incompetent.
In an effort to gain some independence, the League refused to support a decision to maintain an unpopular 10 p.m. COVID-19 curfew, abstaining in a cabinet vote. Coalition partners warned that the government would fall if Salvini tried to shirk his responsibility in future.
"I want the government to carry on for two years, but we cannot allow a party in the ruling majority to do this again," said Enrico Letta, head of the centre-left Democratic Party.
As Draghi tackles the most difficult part of his mandate, a series of reforms demanded by Brussels to secure funds worth billions of euros, the tensions are likely to get worse.
The measures include politically divisive issues such as a shake-up of the justice system and a new tax code - two areas where it will be extremely hard to find cabinet consensus.
"There will continue to be turbulence in the government and it is bound to increase in the coming months," said Giovanni Orsina, head of LUISS university's school of government in Rome.
"As the COVID crisis recedes, without hundreds of deaths a day, politics will regain its place."
Lawmakers predict that will only exacerbate tensions between the League and Brothers of Italy.
Party sources said Salvini and Meloni had not met face-to-face since the League joined the government and the bloc had failed to agree on joint candidates for a slew of important mayoral elections due this autumn across Italy.
"I have been trying to unite the centre right for months ahead of the local elections," Salvini said in a statement on Thursday, upset after the people he had put forward to be mayors of Rome and Milan announced they would not be candidates.
"They lost patience," he said.
(Editing by Alison Williams)