The Daily Telegraph

Continuity candidate

How Merkel’s political rival convinced voters he was her natural successor

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Olaf Scholz took the idea of selling himself to Germany as the new Angela Merkel so seriously that he had himself photograph­ed in her trademark pose, both hands together in a diamond shape.

It was a gambit that paid off spectacula­rly in the election in September. Mr Scholz, 63, managed to convince voters that he was Mrs Merkel’s natural heir despite being from a rival party.

Now he is set to succeed her as chancellor and form a new government after pulling off Germany’s first three-way coalition deal.

When he was mayor of his native Hamburg, Mr Scholz was so boring he was nicknamed the “Scholzomat”. But he turned that to his advantage when he successful­ly reinvented himself in the run-up to the election.

The turning point in Mr Scholz’s career was when he lost a leadership contest for control of his Social Democrat party (SPD) to a Momentum-style hard-left takeover in 2019.

Mr Scholz’s career appeared to be over, and the SPD looked to be headed for the same electoral oblivion as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

But its new hard-left leaders realised they were too unpopular with ordinary voters to win a general election, and

recalled Mr Scholz to stand as their candidate for chancellor.

It was his last chance, and he grabbed it with both hands.

Though he paid lip service to the usual slogans – “A better future is possible” was one – he understood in a way his rivals did not that Germans did not really want change, and pitched himself as the continuity candidate.

Despite being Mrs Merkel’s political rival, he had served as finance minister in her coalition for four months and it enabled him to portray himself as a natural successor.

He had proved he could be trusted with the nation’s finances. But he had also shown he was a man for a crisis by presiding over the country’s massive coronaviru­s bailout, spending he described as “the bazooka that’s needed to get the job done”.

While Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) fought over her legacy, he understood that her popular appeal was based less on a particular set of policies than on her reputation for competence.

He was helped by his rivals’ haplessnes­s. The CDU’S Armin Laschet was filmed laughing at a solemn event to honour the victims of catastroph­ic floods. The Green party’s Annalena Baerbock was accused of plagiarisi­ng large sections of a book.

While their campaigns imploded, Mr Scholz went quietly about his business, and looked like the only adult in the room. As one Berlin political insider put it: “Who can take

Merkel’s place and sit down opposite Putin? Scholz is the only one up to the job.”

Since the election Mr Scholz has stuck to following the Merkel approach.

While the other parties have briefed journalist­s on issues from the Nord Stream pipeline to coronaviru­s policy, he has said nothing.

Right now, his position on many key issues is far from clear – a strategy Mrs Merkel often employed to give herself room for manoeuvre.

Despite his reinventio­n, Mr Scholz is not without his own skeletons in the cupboard – but so far none of them has damaged him.

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