Italy PM Conte's victory over powerful Benettons may come with price
* Government ousted Benettons from motorway management
* Deal boosts image of PM Conte
* But talks exacerbated coalition tensions
* Economy chief Gualtieri plays leading role
ROME, July 16 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte emerged stronger from this week's deal ousting the Benetton family from its control of Italy's lucrative motorways, but his victory over one of the country's most powerful financial dynasties may carry a price.
The long negotiating process with the company exacerbated frictions among ministers, government sources told Reuters, in particular between Conte and his economy chief Roberto Gualtieri.
Gualtieri, from the center-left Democratic Party (PD), is central to key dossiers as Rome seeks European support for its coronavirus-hit economy. He is seen as a potential rival to Conte.
The complex accord reached in the early hours of Wednesday, which will see the state essentially take control over the motorways, surprised Conte's critics and united the normally quarrelsome coalition parties – at least on the surface.
Despite widespread skepticism he could prevail, Conte has waged war on the Benettons ever since a Genoa bridge managed by their Autostrade per l'Italia unit, collapsed in 2018, killing 43 people.
"The government has affirmed a principle, trampled on in the past, that public infrastructure is a precious public asset," Conte said after last ditch talks with Benetton's holding company Atlantia.
Yet some 12 hours earlier the premier was locked in what two sources called "a very heated exchange" with Gualtieri, whom he accused of being too soft on Atlantia as he hammered out the technical aspects of its staggered exit from Autostrade.
A source close to the Benettons said the deal was negotiated directly between Gualtieri and Atlantia's chief executive Carlo Bertazzo.
Gualtieri denied any coalition tensions, saying on television the government was united and "Conte's determination was decisive in obtaining the final result."
The previous day a letter written to Conte in March by Transport Minister Paola De Micheli was leaked to the press in which De Micheli, also from the PD, urged the premier in vain to take into consideration Autostrade's latest mediation offer.
The two episodes underscore the friction and mutual suspicions coursing through the coalition of the PD, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the centrist Italia Viva led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and the left-wing LEU.
5-Star had always taken the hardest line towards Atlantia, pushing for its license to be revoked and clashing with Renzi's party which constantly urged a mediated settlement and was seen by 5-Star as Atlantia's representative in government.
The deal, which has still to be formally detailed, envisages a state holding company, the CDP, taking a majority stake with allied investors in Autostrade and the Benettons forced to gradually give up their shares.
All the coalition groups hailed it as a victory for their own party line while Conte, who has no party affiliation, was seen as the biggest winner, belying critics who portray him as an indecisive procrastinator.
"Conte has emerged as a decision-maker who has put the motorways on a path of renationalisation," said Massimiliano Panarari, a sociologist at Rome's Mercatorum University.
However, he warned that the protracted infighting over Autostrade has probably left permanent scars in coalition relations which may weaken the premier in the medium term.
"The tensions have become more acute, which makes Conte more vulnerable, but his image and popularity are strengthened, making it harder for the parties to get rid of him," Panarari said.
The 5-Star Movement was most vocal after Wednesday's accord, saying it had achieved its goal of wrestling control over the motorways from the Benettons, a symbol of the Italian establishment it had always fought.
Yet as always the devil is in the detail. The timing of the Benetton's exit has still not been fixed, and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, 5-Star's most prominent figure, warned against nasty surprises.
"We're not at the finishing line yet, the revocation of Autostrade's license is not off the table," he said on Facebook. (additional reporting by Stephen Jewkes and Francesca Landini in Milan; Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
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