Someone should now explain to the Italians how it was possible to go, overnight, from "The Ship Sails On" by Silvio Berlusconi to "Titanic" by Giulio Tremonti. Someone should explain to a disoriented public how it could tumble in just a few hours from the Berlusconi lie of an Italy that "has already come out of the crisis, and much better than the others," to the rhetoric of Giulio Tremonti warning of a public debt that "threatens to devour our future and that of our children."

Down this abyss of political contradictions and media falsifications lies hidden the fiasco of a government that for three years has culpably denied the evidence and is now being brutally overwhelmed by the emergency. No one has explained to the citizens stunned by this crushing blow how such a devastating and painful short-circuit took place. And no one will. Above all, the sole author of the colossal deception – namely, the President of the Council — will not be stepping forward to explain it.

For a week now, the Nonexistent Knight, who seems to have ridden straight out of Calvino's novel, has been neither seen nor heard from. Italy has come under attack by speculators, and it has offered up every possible pretext for an attack: a premier branded as a “corruptor" of the judicial process, a government majority riven by infighting, a procession of ministers awash in business scandals or ‘mascaraed’ (a Sicilan term meaning having one’s face dirtied by one’s enemies) by being hauled up in Mafia trials, and internal feuds in the apparatus of state. Italy in these trying times is becoming the second "i" in the acronym that lumps together the lame ducks of Euroland: we too are in the "PIIGS” now, along with Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Yet Berlusconi stays silent. He is, it seems, preoccupied with organising his next vacation in Antigua. From the star performer of the Global Village to mere entertainer at the Holiday Village, as happened in the hot summer of 2006.

Loud speeches break the deafening silence. On the international front, Merkel and Ben Bernanke are encouraging Italy to stick with the austerity, while at home the President of the Republic and the governor of the Bank of Italy are winning that fragment of "national cohesion" that is needed, at the very least, to bring off this rescue manoeuvre.

The Minister of Economy goes to the Senate to put his name to the decree, as a last resort that should be approved right away to stave off the final assault of the markets. [On July 14, the Senate approved an austerity budget of 47 billion euros to reach a balanced budget in 2014. In turn, the assembly should adopt the austerity budget no later than Saturday, July 16]. Tremonti gives a major speech on the “hour of an irrevocable decision," evoking the apocalyptic image of a Europe that has arrived at its “rendezvous with destiny" and recognising that "salvation will come not from finance, but from politics" and that "politics cannot afford to make errors." But not one word does he utter to justify himself and apologise for all the blunders committed by the government following its electoral victory in April 2008. No mea culpa. Merely a desperate call to join forces. His plea: “The country is looking to us – to the government, to the majority, to the opposition."

The call has been heard. No one wants Italy to face the fate of Greece, or for it should slip into the abyss and drag down the entire European monetary union with it. No one hopes that the fall of Berlusconi will be a spectacle worth paying "any price for", especially not the bankruptcy of the nation. And so this “whirlwind budget” must be forced through. But it will bring in its train a huge social cost that, once again, will be paid by the weak. Members of an expanding and increasingly helpless middle class are now being forced to swallow payments out of their own pockets for medical prescriptions, as well as a hiring freeze in the public sector and cutbacks to teaching positions – and possibly even the axing of tax deductions for spouses and dependent children. The total cost to families is estimated at more than 500 euros.

Even the centre-left is forced to hold its nose and let the budget pass, despite inequities that weigh not only on the pockets of taxpayers but on the sentiments of the markets as well. Yet whether it’s 40, 49 or 65 billion euros, this budget may in fact not be enough to stop the rising wave of speculation.

The apparent calm of the last two days has already ended: the stock exchange is chalking up further losses, bank shares are tumbling, the spread between Italian and German bonds is back above 300, and at the auction of BTP (Italian government bonds) the "risk premium" to be paid for investing in Italy has soared to levels not known before the advent of the euro. It is a sign that the "cure" is not enough, because the policies for austerity– never mind policies for growth – lack credibility. It is not enough to bow to the totem pole of the "balanced budget": speeches must be followed up with deeds. And this budget does not give enough security.

This is the account to be settled, the bill left on the table by the Nonexistent Knight. Without batting an eyelash, without paying any "pledge". Italians will remember that, when they line up in queues, wallets open, or stop in at a medical clinic, or when they pay their stamp duty on ordinary treasury bills. Above all, they will remember it in the voting booth that day they get called back to the polls. Let’s hope this call comes as soon as possible. Maybe there is still time to get off the Titanic.