Schroder has arrived, not just at party conference in Berlin, where he floated in on back of the Holzmann cloud, but also in the party. In his speech the party chairman spoke like the prodigal son who, after adventures, excesses and wandering off the track, returns home, not as a failure, but as a wiser man. This Schroder wanted to be the Schroder of the small people. He promises them that he won't leave them when globalisation scares them. He guarantees them that he will protect them from capitalist predator. He pointed doubters to his Holzmann coup. Thanks to his intervention in the failed construction company Holzmann, the party is willing to believe him. The Chancellor did not give a really good speech, but before him he had a party conference which was absolutely determined to accept him for the time being. It is this determination which will end Schroder's eight-month probation period as SPD party leader. His aides in the party have often referred to a "new Schroder" recently. He is certainly a different speaker. Hardly once did he allow himself the off-hand comments which have occasionally proved to be his downfall. There was no small measure of Lafontaine in this new Schroder, even though "Lafontainisms" still sound rehearsed coming from him. Schroder has changed his political colours as the chameleon does its colours. Now he has taken on the colour which his party likes.
Schroder has achieved a respectable result. The hurdle for his re-election as Chairman of the Social Democrat Party was 80 per cent plus. That he would score 86.3 per cent, even the Chancellor himself had not dared reckoning on. The tax-payers' millions for Holzmann, the CDU's financial affairs - these inspired the delegates to vote for reconciliation. But the question remains: how much Schroder can the SPD tolerate, and how much of the SPD can Gerhard Schroder put up with?
Social democratic heads are somewhat freer; that is result of banging against reality. But it is also the result of Schroder's efforts to convince party members. After the election defeats this year, he had his back to the wall. In being re-elected as Chairman, he improved his result by 10 percentage points. That shows it was worth coming closer to the party. Self-confident, and using smooth rhetoric at times, Schroder appealed for support for his policy - which he did not just portray as an emergency operation, but as new departure towards the modernisation of social democracy. His motto: as much Schroder as possible, as much Lafontaine as necessary. At the end of his speech, Schroder added that phrase and the names which are irritating to SPD: New Centre and Tony Blair. Is the SPD torn between traditionalism and modernisation? All a big misunderstanding, says the chairman, and some people are rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
A warming speech for the comrades' souls. Was that the real Schroder, or is the one with the cigar and Schroder-Blair paper the real one? After yesterday we do not know. Social justice was the leitmotif for everything from the austerity budget to modernisation. There was no talk of rolling back state, of flexibility, of Germany's new role in the world. He proclaimed himself as the saviour of Social Democrat values. And the part conference applauded, even the Land organisations that have lost elections because of Schroder. The SPD is easy to warm up, especially when the fire of the CDU affair is blazing outside.