Mr Zaia, Governor of the Veneto region whose response to the coronavirus pandemic has been widely praised, has insisted he is not looking to take over – but one former party colleague this week contrasted their abilities, suggesting Mr Salvini had “run out of slogans”. Mr Zaia, who won the last two regional elections in Verona by high margins, currently has a 51 percent approval rating, making him the second-most popular politician in Italy behind Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, on 59 percent. He has won particular praise for his handling of the ongoing pandemic in Veneto, one of the country’s hardest-hit regions.
A widespread testing regime, initiated as a result of advice from epidemiologist Andrea Crisanti, is widely regarded as having spared Venetia from the heavy death toll of neighbouring Lombardy.
His popularity contrasts sharply with that of Mr Salvini, with recent polls suggesting his approval rating has dipped under 40 percent.
In an interview with Politico, Mr Zaia downplayed his leadership ambitions, saying: “They are wrong if they think I want to fill Matteo Salvini’s shoes.
“Salvini should not be afraid of me.”
Assessing the contrast in their leadership styles, he added: “I am part of the League that shouts less, but we work well together.
“Everyone has his own language and his own way of communicating.”
However, Flavio Tosi, a former League member, suggested Mr Zaia’s day may come sooner rather than later.
Mr Tosi, a former mayor of Verona, said unlike Mr Salvini, who resigned as Italy’s interior minister last year, Mr Zaia has proven his ability to govern.
He told Italian newspaper Il Foglio: “Salvini is OK when there is a big mess, but when there is a need to govern, no.
“So much so that today he is gone. He ran out of slogans.
“With immigration gone and attacks on Europe subdued, Salvini has nothing to say.”
He added: “Zaia has continued to be an administrator.”
Mr Salvini himself kept up a steady stream of posts on Twitter this morning, taking potshots at former coalition partners 5SM and the Democratic Party (PD), accusing them of “arguing over everything”.
(Additional reporting by Maria Ortega)