The Crown Prince who pushed too hard and too fast: John Eisenhammer in Bonn examines the rise and sudden decline of Wolfgang Schauble

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THERE can be no more dramatic indication of the erosion of confidence in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's leadership than the actions over the past fortnight of his once so utterly loyal servant, Wolfgang Schauble.

The close partnership between the two men, patron and protege, had done much to shape the course of the ruling Christian Democratic party (CDU) over the past 10 years; until, that is, under the strain of panicking MPs and doubts about Mr Kohl's ability to control the enormous social and economic challenges of unification, the ties of friendship and respect began to snap.

Ever since his time in 1990 as Bonn's chief negotiator of the Unity Treaty with East Germany, Mr Schauble, who was then Interior Minister, has kept close contact with the eastern CDU MPs. He worked increasingly with these MPs' self-styled leader, Gunter Krause, who had been East Germany's chief unity negotiator. The two men felt that more needed to be done to rescue eastern Germany from its economic misery. It was they who developed the idea of a compulsory loan from the better-off west for investment in small- and medium-sized industry in the east.

They did so with Mr Kohl's backing, but pushed the plan far harder than the Chancellor's instincts allowed. As the storm provoked by the new hidden tax plan broke, Mr Kohl tried to pull back, but Mr Schauble pushed on, seemingly determined to force the CDU finally to come to terms with the country's growing economic difficulties. It was a single-minded demonstration of force by a man who, since the assassination attempt on him in October 1990 (he was left paralysed from the waist down), had become driven, tough to the extent of obstinacy.

But there were also signs of a political strategy in Mr Schauble's willingness to defy the Chancellor and force through the investment loan plan. Insiders say he was moving, however tentatively, in the direction of a grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats, who have long called for higher taxes on the better-off to finance unification.

Mr Schauble was looking for the consensus he felt was needed to prevent the problems of unification achieving threatening proportions. Mr Kohl fiercely opposes the very idea of a grand coalition. So Mr Kohl would have to go.

Mr Schauble, who turns 50 in a week's time, never got far enough to play Brutus. So he remains Mr Kohl's number two and leader of the CDU parliamentary party. But he has been weakened; the trust, the special relationship, has gone. Since 1990 Mr Schauble had been spoken of as the Crown Prince. Even the assassination attempt, such is the man's toughness, was not considered to have ended his prospects of succeeding Mr Kohl: 47 days after being shot, he was at a cabinet meeting, in a wheelchair.

Mr Kohl's frequent visits to him in hospital, his praise of the man who had been his chief whip in the early 1980s, demonstrated a warmth far beyond normal party political ties. Mr Kohl proved this again when, last November, in the face of much scepticism, he appointed Mr Schauble to the tough, and crucial, job of leader of the CDU parliamentary party.

This post, for which Mr Schauble's negotiating skills and persuasive powers were seen as ideal, is accepted as the ante-chamber of the highest office. For it is as parliamentary leader that a future chancellor wins the backing of, and control over, his party. No one knows the importance of this more than Mr Kohl. Mr Schauble was meant to follow his master's path. But that path became unexpectedly rocky and twisted, as popular disaffection with the government grew, and MPs became increasingly worried about their re-election prospects in 1994. Mr Schauble tried, however, to force the pace. From Crown Prince, he has now fallen to the level of political miscreant on suspended sentence. For Mr Kohl knows no mercy when it comes to seeing off challengers.

(Photograph omitted)