Politicians and public react with disbelief at the timing of Renzi's move.
Italy faces a political crisis after former prime minister Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva (IV) party from the country’s ruling coalition, leaving the premier Giuseppe Conte without a parliamentary majority.
Renzi announced the resignation of the two IV government ministers, Teresa Bellanova (agriculture) and Elena Bonetti (equal opportunities), during an eagerly-awaited press conference on the evening of 13 January.
Renzi's decision to pull out of the four-party coalition comes as Italy is grappling to contain a resurging covid-19 pandemic amid the worst economic turmoil since world war two.
It is not immediately clear how the government will handle the ill-timed crisis.
The options include an attempt to negotiate new terms with IV, paving the way for a cabinet reshuffle, or Conte could offer his resignation to the president, Sergio Mattarella, who could give him a mandate to forge a new coalition, or seek a vote of confidence at the risk of not shoring up enough support to fill the gap left by IV.
Another option includes Mattarella putting together a government of national unity, to deal with the coronavirus emergency.
A last option would be snap elections, however there is little appetite for this among the coalition parties - the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and leftist LEU party - which, along with IV, would likely fare poorly in the polls.
Renzi has ruled out this option too, saying the next election would be held in 2023 when the current parliamentary term comes to an end.
He has also left the door open to the possibility of supporting a new administration led by Conte, telling reporters: “It is up to Conte to decide the next step.”
In the meantime the opposition, comprising the far-right Lega led by Matteo Salvini, has called for Conte's resignation, saying that a fresh election would be the best way to guarantee stable government.
The Lega, along with its partners the far-right Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) and Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia (FI) could potentially secure more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Renzi has said that he would "never" switch allegiance to a possible future government led by the Lega.
The departure of IV comes after several weeks of clashes between Renzi and his coalition partners, mainly over Italy’s post-covid economic recovery plan and Conte's leadership style.
Late on Tuesday night, following pressure from Renzi, the government made last-minute changes to plans on how to spend the €223 billion that Italy is set to receive in EU grants and loans to reboot its battered economy.
However this was not enough to appease the former premier who reiterated his view that Italy should tap the EU’s bailout fund, known as the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a move that has always been resisted by the M5S, the government's largest ruling party.
Renzi's decision to bail out of the government - largely unpopular among the Italian public - has baffled and angered members of Conte's coalition who had appealed with the former premier not to go down this path.
The crisis came the same day that Italy topped 80,000 coronavirus-related deaths - the second highest toll in Europe - according to data released by the health ministry.