AFTER 88 days of Italy’s most serious political impasse since the second world war; after nearly three months of false starts, painstaking negotiations, giddying about-turns and vetoes—culminating in a heart-stopping market panic—many Italians would have been content to be governed by the horse that, legend has it, the Emperor Caligula wanted to make a consul.

Instead, on June 1st, they got as their prime minister a little-known law professor, Giuseppe Conte (pictured). His cabinet is formed largely of relative political novices from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and hard-right populists belonging to the Northern League. With this all-populist coalition, Italy enters territory never before explored in a western European state.

Mr Conte’s first stab at heading a government was scotched by Sergio Mattarella, the president, on May 27th. The head of state controversially refused to swear in the populists’ proposed finance minister, an 81-year-old economist, Paolo Savona, on the grounds that he was a hardened Eurosceptic, who in the past has written of the need for Italy to have a secret plan to quit the euro over the course of a weekend.

After much toing and froing and a run on Italian government bonds, the real power-brokers behind Mr Conte—the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, and the head of the League, Matteo Salvini—agreed to shift Mr Savona to another post. But to show Brussels they had not given up their objections to the operation of the single currency, they made him minister for Europe. That, though, is a job with far less practical and political significance.

Not that the economics professor they put in Mr Savona’s place is an obliging Europhile. Giovanni Tria recently defended Mr Savona in an article, in which he attacked German economic policies and suggested that it was not Italy, but Germany, that should quit the euro. One of his jobs will be to oversee the introduction of the drastically lower tax rates promised by the League. Proponents of the system argue that it would kick-start Italy’s slow-growing economy. Opponents say it would sacrifice revenue the treasury cannot afford to forgo. Italy’s public-sector debt is an eye-watering 130% or so of GDP.

Mr Di Maio, whose party is the biggest in Italy’s parliament, will be a deputy prime minister in charge of welfare. That will enable him to supervise the phasing-in of a costly “citizens’ income” for the poor and unemployed. He will also preside over the phasing-out of a pension reform, which was passed at the height of the euro crisis to reassure Italy’s partners of its determination to enact structural reforms and get the deficit under control. Mr Salvini, the other new deputy prime minister, will take charge of the interior ministry where he will be expected by his followers to fulfil a pledge to expel hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

In what looks like an attempt, if perhaps not a very convincing one, to reassure Italy’s allies, the foreign ministry has been handed to a capable and non-aligned moderate, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, who spent 20 years at the European Commission in Brussels before serving in two previous governments. An outstanding trial lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno of the League, has been given the job of reforming Italy’s notoriously tangled bureaucracy. She is among five women in the 19-strong cabinet. It also includes as environment minister Sergio Costa, a general in the carabinieri, a paramilitary police force, who is an expert on environmental crime.

The members of the new government can expect to be subjected to searching scrutiny. If implemented, the coalition’s programme of tax cuts and spending increases threatens to send Italy’s budget deficit spiralling out of control. Still, after a week of panic caused by fears of a fresh election, in which Italy’s relationship with the EU would probably have been the central issue, at least the initial reaction of the markets was favourable. The new government was greeted by a sharp fall in the much-watched spread between the yields on German and Italian ten-year bonds.