Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte today faces a crunch vote of confidence in the country’s Senate. If he loses it will spark a full-blown political crisis.

Mr Conte has been forced to test support for his governing coalition in front of Italian lawmakers after former prime minister Matteo Renzi last week removed his small party’s backing for the government.

The exit of Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva party from the coalition has put Mr Conte’s future in doubt at a time when Italy has suffered more than 82,000 deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, the second highest in Europe, and a brutal economic recession.

On Tuesday, Mr Conte defended his government’s record in handling the pandemic after sharp criticism from Mr Renzi, and argued that his political rival’s resignation had caused needless uncertainty at a time of great crisis.

“We face a challenge of epochal proportions,” Mr Conte told senators ahead of the vote, which is expected to take place in the evening. “The whole political class risks losing contact with reality. Was there really a need to open a political crisis at this stage?”

Mr Conte easily won a vote on Monday in Italy’s lower house, where the remaining parties in his coalition have a majority, but faces a far tougher test in today’s vote in the Senate.

If Mr Conte is unable to win in the upper house, he will be forced to hand in his resignation to Italian president Sergio Mattarella, who will then ask parliamentarians to attempt to form a new coalition.

New elections, which are not due to be held until 2023 at the latest, are unlikely in part due to the difficulty of holding them during the pandemic.

Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva, which has the support of only about 3 per cent of voters according to national opinion polls, is abstaining from the confidence vote in the Senate, meaning the number of senators Mr Conte needs to win over is smaller than an absolute majority.

However, if the prime minister were to win the vote without achieving an absolute majority in the upper house, the surviving government would be seriously weakened and unable to pass a budget. Doing so requires an absolute majority in the chamber.

Over the weekend Italian media reported that Mr Conte and his supporters had contacted numerous senators outside the ruling coalition in a bid to win their support, including some from Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing opposition party Forza Italia.

The leaders of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic party, the two largest parties in the current coalition, have strongly backed Mr Conte to continue as prime minister.

However, other opposition politicians have attacked him for engaging in what they see as political horse-trading in his hurried attempt to ensure his survival.

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the rightwing Brothers of Italy party, said Mr Conte should be “ashamed” of “the haggling that has taken place in this chamber” after the confidence vote in the lower house on Monday.