A year-and-a-half after he was appointed as Italy’s unelected head of a unity government, Mario Draghi has resigned as prime minister.

He told President Sergio Mattarella he was standing down after three parties in his government refused to back him in a confidence vote the night before.

The president asked him to remain as caretaker leader and early elections are expected this autumn.

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni is already being tipped to win.

Mr Draghi, 74, was a popular choice as prime minister, dubbed Super Mario for his handling of the eurozone crisis as head of the European Central Bank.

In February last year, he was given the task of guiding Italy through the Covid pandemic and economic recovery, bolstered by a big EU package conditional on major reforms.

Before heading to the presidential palace, the Quirinale, Mr Draghi was given a round of applause in the lower house of parliament. “Even central bankers have their hearts touched sometimes. Thank you for all the work done in this period,” he told MPs.

He first tendered his resignation a week ago when a populist party in his broad-based government refused to back an economic package for businesses and families.

President Mattarella had asked him to stay in the post and after days of silence Mr Draghi told the upper house of parliament he would continue if the political parties were prepared to back a strong, cohesive government: “Are the parties and you parliamentarians ready to rebuild this pact?”

For several hours Italians waited with bated breath for the answer, before three of the parties decided they would not back him in a vote of confidence.

The Milan stock market dropped a further 2% on Thursday after falling the previous day too. Another key indicator closely watched in Italy, called the spread, was up more than 7%: that is the gap between Italian and German 10-year bonds.

President Mattarella said his government would remain in office to handle current affairs, but did not say exactly what would happen next. Elections were due to take place in the first half of 2023, but will most likely be brought forward to mid-September or early October once parliament is dissolved.