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Lucky Schroder revels in new unity

GERHARD SCHRoDER, Chancellor of Germany, made peace with his fractious party yesterday, uniting them behind a deliberately vague programme that steered a cautious course between left and right.

He even received a standing ovation at the end of his keynote speech at the Social Democrat conference, although about one in five delegates remained seated and clapped with little enthusiasm. In the election for party chairman, where Mr Schroder was unopposed, he received a lukewarm 86 per cent of votes.

However, the party seemed at ease with itself for once. Unemployment figures released yesterday showed that the dole queues are at last shortening as the economy picks up. And Social Democrats are delighted by the spectacle of their opponents, the Christian Democrats, falling into ever deeper disarray.

Mr Schroder exploited the opposition's discomfort to the full, milking his audience for its warmest applause by rounding on Helmut Kohl. In 16 years of government Mr Kohl had neglected the economy and "restructured only the party accounts," said Mr Schroder, referring to the party funding scandal hitting the Christian Democrats. "He would rather make personal backroom deals than abide by the law," said Mr Schroder.

It was the strongest comment yet from the government on Mr Kohl's financial dealings, whose latest trail leads to anonymous Swiss bank accounts. Although the ex-chancellor has yet to be formally charged, prosecutors in Bonn are to decide later this week whether to open proceedings against him personally for embezzlement.

By contrast, Mr Schroder is enjoying a renaissance. Yesterday's conference was the left's best opportunity to mount an attack, but the Chancellor has learnt not to provoke them. He has injected more compassion into his rhetoric, peppering yesterday's address with side-swipes at millionaires and greedy multinational companies.

The phrase "social justice" got more than 20 mentions, the dark threat of globalisation was evoked, and Mr Schroderasserted his right to intervene in the affairs of bankrupt private companies - exactly as he did last month when construction group Holzmann went under and the Chancellor rushed to its rescue with taxpayers' money. His actions shocked the business community but were acclaimed by Social Democrats, and they pushed up his personal poll rating in the nation.

His leftist credentials thus established, it was time yesterday to court the party's pragmatic wing again. He threw it covert messages of support as he charted a third way between Blairism and the ideas expressed by the guest of honour, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin of France. Social justice, Mr Schroder said, had to be linked to innovation. "We will get justice when we have growth and dynamism."

Tony Blair got a warm mention, pleasing a Labour emissary no end. "When it comes to fairness and equality, it really is as Tony Blair has phrased it," Mr Schroder said. "We are not about equal earnings. We are about real equality - equal chances for fulfilment, equal access to knowledge, equal opportunities to flourish."

This synthesis of the old and the new should help the party to lay ideological battles aside for the moment. These days the comrades have little time for infighting.

The conference continues today, but the real show is elsewhere; the Christian Democrats hold another emergency meeting to find out just where Mr Kohl had stashed away whose loot. Mr Schroder is a very lucky politician.