Merkel man jumps ship

July 13, 2009

The man who has been so eloquently selling Chancellor Angela Merkel and her policies to the German public as a government spokesman for the last 3 years, 9 months and two weeks has been furloughed.

But Thomas Steg’s voluntary departure in Berlin just 2 months and 2 weeks before the federal election has raised more than a few eyebrows — he is not leaving his post as deputy government spokesman to go off and write a book or study horticulture but rather he will be leading the election campaign communications efforts of the man who wants to knock Merkel out of office — SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Steg’s surprise move has shocked and dismayed some in Merkel’s Christian Democrats who fear his inside knowledge of Merkel and her foibles might prove to be dynamite if used by Steinmeier. His Social Democrats trail Merkel’s conservative bloc in opinion polls by more than 10 points ahead of the Sept. 27 election and there is a whiff of desperation in the move. Yet the conservatives are nervous about Steg’s switching sides just as the campaign heats up. “There are some close to Merkel who fear that he could now provide all sorts of confidential information to Steinmeier,” wrote Stern magazine. “Steg knows everything — about the strengths, the weaknesses and the CDU’s election strategy.”

Even though Merkel’s CDU and the SPD have been locked in their awkward grand coalition government since 2005, Steg’s loyalties seemed to lie clearly with Merkel even though he is an SPD member and was first appointed to the job by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2002 after working as his speechwriter. Steg nevertheless proved to be a valuable and faithful spokesman for Merkel, alongside her chief spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.

Last summer at the height of the Barack-Obama-at-the-Brandenburg-Gate-affair, Steg unambiguously and ardently presented Merkel’s point of view to the media that a U.S. presidential candidate should not be allowed to speak at the historic landmark even though a spokesman for Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister who favoured Obama’s speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, took a diametrically opposed position. The disagreement between the two spokesmen was one of the most riveting government news conferences of the last decade.

It was hard to think of Steg as anything but a Merkel man after that. Some in the SPD had already long written off Steg a turncoat who sold the chancellor far better than he had to. Merkel had agreed to keep him in her chancellery after defeating Schroeder in 2005 because she realised she needed someone with some government experience. “We’ll give it a try,” she said in 2005.

Even before the Obama spat, Steg had endeared himself to Merkel for his delicate and confident handling of the public furore that erupted in Germany after she was pictured wearing a dress with a plunging neckline to the opera in Oslo. “The Chancellor is a little bit surprised,” Steg told a government news conference when asked about the front page pictures of Merkel in the glamorous dress. “That this evening gown — which is a new composition, a new arrangement, if you will — from the chancellor’s collection wouldcause such a furore is not something that the chancellor intended,” Steg told the news conference with his customary straight face.

Maybe it’s just a very Germanic-like sense of duty that made Steg such an astonishingly reliable spokesman for Merkel and could make him just as competent to Steinmeier. But how credible will he be if Steinmeier’s campaign script calls for him to start slinging mud at Merkel?

PHOTOS: Top: Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the inauguration of the Oslo Opera House April 12, 2008. Bottom: Merkel’s deputy spokeman Thomas Steg addresses a news conference in Berlin.

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