GERMANY'S NEW finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, arrives in Britain this afternoon for what it would be fair to describe as a flying visit. He arrives at teatime, meets Gordon Brown, and is out again by early evening. It is a get-to-know-you visit; but it is unclear whether Mr Brown will be much wiser about German government policy.
Mr Lafontaine and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, have more or less openly tussled in recent weeks. Mr Lafontaine, who dramatically failed to unseat Helmut Kohl in 1990, has kept his knives sharp so that he can use them against his own party colleagues. He staged a palace coup against the former party leader, Rudolf Scharping, a few years ago. And he would dearly love to have Mr Schroder's job today.
Mr Schroder, a political bruiser in his own right, is not easily knifed. But he remains wary of Mr Lafontaine, who is seen as being to the left of Mr Schroder, the pragmatist supreme. But it often seems to be power rather than political radicalism that Mr Lafontaine hankers after.
Mr Lafontaine has implied that he would favour a softening of the criteria for the euro - a German heresy which Mr Schroder has not echoed. Tony Blair, too, appeared this week to give a cool response to Mr Lafontaine's suggestions of a new system of "target zones" to limit exchange rate shifts, emphasising that free movement of capital should not be restricted.
Given the confusing messages emerging from Bonn, it may be a matter of waiting for a real policy to be sorted out. Meanwhile, in the absence of agreement on meatier subjects, perhaps Mr Lafontaine and Mr Brown can make some amiable small talk on a subject on which they would surely agree: how both of them would be perfectly suited for the boss's job.
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