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Kohl's rottweiler is called to heel

It was Otto "Fastlips" Hauser's fourth outing before the press yesterday and, contrary to expectations, not the last. The firing squad that despatched his predecessor a mere fortnight ago had run out of either bullets or replacements.

After a meeting of the top leadership of Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democrats, the German government spokesman was reprieved. But not forgiven, no matter how humbly he grovelled yesterday. He promised to "concentrate" henceforth on his job as "government spokesman", instead of acting as the Chancellor's battering ram in an increasingly dirty election campaign.

Mr Hauser, a failed journalist with suave looks hailing not that far from Rottweil, is also a Christian Democrat MP, and has been having problems distinguishing between the two roles. Among the venues he was forced to visit on his knees yesterday was the Bonn press corps, whose members had already tired of Mr Hauser's one-sided party propaganda.

That might seem like a job well done, but Mr Hauser's bosses at the Chancellery did not see it that way. For during his short tenure in the new job, the spokesman had piled indiscretion upon indiscretion, unwittingly revealing his masters' darkest thoughts about the populace.

It is customary at the time of elections to remind voters of the debts they owe their leaders, especially if the government of the day happens to be on the skids. But to spell out the link between voting records and the stations at which the gravy train might call is unusual in a democracy.

Mr Hauser was new to this game and unaware of the unwritten rules. He had been hired for his aggression, and did not want to let his bosses down.

The Christian Democrats are deeply offended that their party, lead by the "Chancellor of German unity", is even less popular in the east than the almost-communist Party of Democratic Socialism. Mr Hauser, naturally, has an opinion on that: "We help reconstruction in the east and then they vote for the left," he fumed last week, drawing parallels in passing between the PDS and the Nazis.

Ossi ingratitude, he suggested, was in danger of "over-taxing the solidarity of West Germans". Solidarity is expressed in the "solidarity surcharge" on German income tax, which pays for all the roads, rail links and new recreation centres for the unemployed being built in the east. Questioning such commitment has so far been taboo.

And remains so, as the hapless spokesman soon discovered. Almost nobody failed to protest against his analysis. The PDS and Jewish groups were mortally insulted by the Nazi analogy. The Free Democrats, Mr Kohl's junior - and often juvenile - coalition partners called for Mr Hauser's sacking. The opposition tried vainly to keep up with the odium Mr Hauser's party colleagues were pouring on him.

The gnashing of teeth in Christian Democrat offices in the east could be heard in Bonn. "Voting behaviour in the east and west should have no impact on the continuation of this work," thundered Kurt Biedenkopf, the influential CDU Prime Minister of Saxony. "Any other road would endanger the success of German unification." Not to mention the success of the CDU, he nearly said.

Wolfgang Kubicki, an executive member of the Free Democrats, admitted that much when he said the infamous remarks would strengthen the PDS in the east at the expense of the conservative coalition. "If Mr Hauser has a jot of self-respect he will resign," Mr Kubicki said. "If not, Kohl must fire him."

Still Mr Hauser kept busy. He lobbed grenades into the Social Democrats' camp, spreading communist innuendo about Gerhad Schroder, the SPD's chancellor- candidate. He even found time to cause offence among the foreign press corps.

Upon being asked to say a few words in English to the English service of Deutsche Welle, the German equivalent of the BBC World Service, Mr Hauser came up with the following well-considered statement: "I speak English very well, but I am the German government spokesman and he speaks in German ... Go get yourself a translator. I don't see why I should answer questions in any other language."

In his defence, Mr Hauser said he was too busy at the time, and yesterday he called Deutsche Welle offering to be interviewed - in English. He also tried to excuse some of his wildest remarks by arguing that they had been made whilst wearing a party hat.

Not everyone in the party is prepared to swallow that line, however. "I am not in favour of an MP being allowed to speak more nonsense than a government spokesman," was how Wolfgang Schauble appraised Mr Hauser's work.

But Mr Hauser must be retained, because to lose two spokesmen in a row so close to September's elections would be seen as carelessness. Meanwhile, through no effort of his own, the campaign he was to galvanise has fallen further into disarray.

As the Christian Democrats were trying to limit the damage yesterday, the dykes were bursting elsewhere. In an interview released ahead of publication, Guido Westerwelle, General Secretary of the Free Democrats, volunteered to be the first to pronounce the political death of Helmut Kohl. "The post-Kohl era has already begun," he told Stern magazine, adding that his party might switch sides and join a Social Democrat-led cabinet after the elections. Poor Mr Hauser must now try to spin that into a "Vote Kohl" message.