German Election: At last, Blair has a soulmate in Bonn

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HE CALLS his party the "New" SPD, his slogan appealed to the political centre and he even produced an election pledge card for German voters.

Little wonder that when Gerhard Schroder was congratulated by Tony Blair on Sunday afternoon, the world was quick to point up the comparisons between the two men.

So is the new government in Bonn the beginning of a new chapter in Britain's relations with Europe? On paper, the result is good news for Mr Blair. The chemistry is good between the two leaders. As one British diplomat put it yesterday: "No one is talking about an overnight change, but Britain and Germany suddenly have more interests in common."

Links between New Labour and the SPD are strong, forged in the international socialist group meetings which take place before summits. Jost Stollman, the 43-year-old entrepreneur and moderniser who was shadow economics minister, was the latest SPD visitor to London and duly impressed Blairites. Whitehall optimists see a series of issues on which Germany could enter into strategic alliances with Britain.

But whatever the similarities between the two leaders there are doubts about the direction of the new government in Bonn. Mr Schroder presents himself as a moderniser, but some see this as more a matter of image than policy, and unrepresentative of his party as a whole.

The party chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, is some way to his left and still very influential within the SPD. "It would", said one government source, "be much more difficult for the leader of the British Labour Party to keep on saying `I represent the right direction of social democracy in Europe', when the French and Germans are taking a course more reminiscent of the 1970s."

Then there are the Greens with whom Mr Schroder might form a coalition. In London there is concern that the new German foreign minister might be Joschka Fischer, a Green. In April he warned that if Mr Schroder "tried to widen the Franco-German relationship into a triangle with Britain it would be a disaster for Europe. The British government does not know what it wants" (in Europe).