Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte has resigned, blaming his 'opportunist' deputy Matteo Salvini for making it impossible for him  to continue. 

Deputy prime minister Salvini,  head of the right wing League Party smirked as Conte, head of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, and until recently his coalition partner, described him as ambitious and contemptuous of parliament.

But Salvini, who sought  an no-confidence vote against the 14 month old coalition earlier this month, smirked as he sat beside Conte, and said he would "do it all again" if he had to.

Conte, who has avoided the no confidence vote by stepping down, said Salvini was forcing him to “interrupt” what he contended was a productive government. He said that government reflected the results of Italy’s 2018 election and aimed to “interpret the desires of citizens who in their vote expressed a desire for change”.

Giuseppe Conte addresses parliamentGiuseppe Conte addresses parliament (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The coalition had borught together two rival parties, the 5-Star Movement and Mr Salvini’s Eurosceptic, anti-migrant right-wing League party.

Mr Conte said he will tender his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella.

As head of state, Mr Mattarella could ask him to stay on and find an alternative majority in parliament. That is considered an unlikely scenario given the long-festering acrimony among the coalition’s partners and the deep divisions in the opposition Democrats, who would be a potential partner.

After sounding out party chiefs in consultations expected to start as soon as Wednesday, Mr Mattarella could come to the conclusion that another political leader or a non-partisan figure could cobble together a viable government.

Sergio Mattarella, right, with Giuseppe ConteSergio Mattarella, right, with Giuseppe Conte (Antonio Calanni/AP)

That government’s pressing task would be to lead the country at least for the next few months, when Italy must make painful budget cuts to keep in line with European Union financial regulations.

Failing that, the president could immediately dissolve parliament, three years ahead of schedule, as Mr Salvini has been calling for.

Pulling the plug on parliament sets the stage for a general election as early as late October, right in the middle of delicate budget manoeuvres that will be closely monitored in Brussels.

Mr Conte, a lawyer with no previous political experience, is nominally non-partisan, although he was the clear choice of the 5-Stars when the government was formed.

The premier scathingly quoted Mr Salvini’s own recent demands for an early election so he could gain “full powers” by grabbing the premiership.

Giuseppe Conte, right, addresses Matteo SalviniGiuseppe Conte, right, addresses Matteo Salvini (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Mr Conte blasted Mr Salvini for showing “grave contempt for parliament” and putting Italy at risk for a “dizzying spiral of political and financial instability” in the months ahead by creating an unnecessary crisis that collapses a working government.

Mr Salvini, who sat next to Mr Conte, smirking at times as the premier spoke, began the Senate debate by saying, defiantly: “I’d do it all again.”

Pressing for a new election as soon as possible, Mr Salvini, who as interior minister has led a crackdown on migrants, said: “I don’t fear Italians’ judgment.”

In the European Parliament election three months ago in Italy, as well as in current opinion polls, Mr Salvini’s League party has soared in popularity to be the main political force.