Kohl plays the quitting game to shake allies

The unhappy ship that is Germany's governing coalition was drifting towards the rocks yesterday amid rumours that the captain was preparing to jump overboard.

Although Helmut Kohl's party denied newspaper reports that the Chancellor had threatened to resign four times last week, suggestions that he was contemplating changing the crew could not be dismissed. An attempted show of unity by the current coalition "partners" degenerated yesterday into juvenile name-calling.

The conflict revolves around the government's inability to conjure up, without seeming to fiddle, a balanced budget to qualify Germany for monetary union. Mr Kohl's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have vetoed every attempt to raise taxes. Without higher taxes, the rest of the government argues, the feat cannot be performed, now the Bundesbank has blown the whistle on Theo Waigel's attempt to revalue German gold reserves.

The Free Democrats cannot back down. Unless they can flex their muscle, such as it is, and demonstrate their influence in government, they will disappear from the political scene at the next elections.

Sometimes they go too far. Their latest posturing, which has paralysed the government for the best part of this year, was denounced by Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats yesterday as "blackmail". Whereupon the Free Democrats feigned injury and went off in a huff.

Meanwhile, the government's policy-making arm, the union of Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists, have fallen out among themselves over monetary union. The Christian Socialists of Bavaria have come around to the view that Emu should be postponed beyond 1999.

This makes the position of Mr Waigel, Finance Minister and leader of the Christian Socialists, doubly awkward. In Bonn he is blamed for failing to balance the books and of endangering monetary union. In Bavaria he is lambasted for busting the budget for the sake of the obscure goal of the euro.

All that unites the various shades of Christians in the government is the towering figure of Mr Kohl and hatred of Free Democrat yuppies. The FDP, for their part, are painfully aware that in opposition the voters may regard them as surplus to requirements.

Which is why threats by Mr Kohl to sink his own government just to be rid of his turbulent coalition partners are credible. He has used the gambit before, but this time the threat might be wearing thin.

This is where rumour No 2, leaked from the same Christian source, comes in. According to this, Mr Kohl's people have opened secret talks with the opposition Social Democrats. The mediator is Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democrat chancellor ousted 15 years ago. The government's negotiator is said to be Mr Waigel.

That the two men met last Thursday has been confirmed, but whether they talked football or coalition unclear. An arrangement of some kind would benefit Mr Kohl as it would free the legislative logjam holding up tax reforms. More importantly, it would liberate him from the Free Democrat veto.