'Tame' tycoon jilts Schroder

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The Independent Online
THE MILLIONAIRE picked for government by Gerhard Schroder walked out yesterday, intensifying the battle between the two wings of Germany's Social Democratic Party.

Hours before he was due to be confirmed as economics minister, Jost Stollmann, a computer entrepreneur who had become an emblem for Mr Schroder's "New Centre", said he was no longer interested. Mr Stollmann, who was not a member of any party, cited disappointment with the "disastrous" new government programme, and annoyance at the colonisation of his sphere of authority by Oskar Lafontaine, the Finance Minister.

Mr Stollmann said he could no longer see how the government's modest programme would help to liberate "entrepreneurial energy" and foster the enterprise culture Germany desperately needed. Mr Lafontaine had grabbed Europe-wide powers and responsibility for producing the government's annual reports on the economy. This, Mr Stollmann said, had placed "unacceptable limits" on his ministry.

"I can only fulfil the task of reversing the current trend in unemployment if I get the competence," he said. The implication of his farewell appearance last night was that the Red-Green government being unveiled today is destined to fail.

But Mr Lafontaine emerges from the encounters of the past three weeks in a strengthened position. Fortified with responsibilities poached from the economics ministry, he now has similar powers to a British chancellor, but enjoys more constitutionally guaranteed autonomy. And he remains chairman of the Social Democrats, dispensing patronage at his pleasure. It was to sideline the traditionalists of his party that Mr Schroder had picked Mr Stollmann for his team. A political novice, he was to serve as an instrument in the new Chancellor's effort to break the mould of German politics. He was a decoy in the election campaign, used to articulate unorthodox views about the need for profound change in German society; views Mr Schroder himself felt unable to voice.

As there is little evidence of "New Centre" policies surviving in the programme thrashed out with the Greens, it must be assumed such plans have been shelved, which seems to be confirmed by the choice of the man conjured up at short notice for the non-job, described by an opposition leader as "Minister for opening trade fairs". He is Werner Muller, a former executive of the utility Veba, and a long-standing adviser of Mr Schroder on energy.