The Chancellor's wagon mentality: Lambrecht's mistakes shake the Scholz system

No other member of the government causes trouble for the chancellor as reliably as the defense minister.

The Chancellor's wagon mentality: Lambrecht's mistakes shake the Scholz system

No other member of the government causes trouble for the chancellor as reliably as the defense minister. But no matter how much Lambrecht may burden the coalition: Scholz is unlikely to kick her out. The reasons for this tell a lot about the way Scholz governs the country.

Christine Lambrecht is good news for the opposition, especially for the Union parties CDU and CSU, who are calling for the defense minister to be dismissed. After all, no other minister provides so reliable templates for biting criticism of the traffic light coalition. The latest blunder: her Instagram video at the turn of the year, which demonstrated an astonishing lack of sensitivity and media literacy. The clip was part of embarrassments such as her adult son flying in the Bundeswehr helicopter and visiting the troops in high heels. And it fits the image spread by the opposition and the media of a minister who is overwhelmed by her position given the accelerated, 100 billion euro upgrade of the Bundeswehr and Germany's military support for Ukraine, which is being attacked by Russia. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Christine Lambrecht will be kicked out in the near future - and the reason for this is Olaf Scholz.

During his one-year term in office, the Federal Chancellor has made it clear more than once that, as a matter of principle, he does not jump over sticks that are held out to him by political opponents, coalition partners or the media. The 64-year-old stubbornly refuses to base his decisions on moods and current excitement. That can lead to shrewd policies, such as when the federal government resisted pressure from the public debate last March to impose a total ban on imports of gas, oil and coal from Russia. But Scholz's relaxed self-confidence also increases quickly in defiance. This culminates in the confusing justifications why Germany is not supplying the Ukraine with either Marder or Leopard tanks. Or even lead to quarrels with important allies, for example when Scholz did not want to talk about exiting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline during his initial visit to the USA, a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Scholz is convinced that the government should only be evaluated towards the end of its term. And he is certain that this balance will be positive. According to this calculation, bigger and smaller excitements like those produced by Lambrecht would long since have been forgotten. Especially since Scholz doesn't pay much attention to waves of outrage on social media anyway. He hardly ever uses them himself. But it is an increasingly risky bet that these considerations actually apply to the defense minister. After all, Lambrecht's communicative blunders only reinforce the overall impression that she's out of place. So far, the procurement offensive has been running too slowly and without a plan. There are too many reports that the former Minister of Justice is still unfamiliar with her new topics after a year, be it details of military technology or the Bundeswehr's very own hierarchy and culture of communication.

But to classify Lambrecht as the wrong choice would mean for Scholz to admit a mistake. And that is not at all in the nature of the Chancellor. On St. Nicholas Day 2021, he presented the SPD ministers as a handpicked group. Lambrecht was his personal choice and there is much to suggest that he chose Lambrecht for reasons of loyalty and trust, rather than because of her professional qualifications. Scholz put his chancellery and cabinet together based on the principle of loyalty. Like Lambrecht, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, Building Minister Klara Geywitz and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil are politically in line with Scholz and some have been comrades-in-arms with Hamburg for many years. Karl Lauterbach, who was controversial in his own parliamentary group but extremely popular with parts of the population, became Minister of Health by Scholz's grace.

In the Chancellery, Scholz surrounded himself with even closer companions. His office manager, Jeanette Schwamberger, his spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, and the head of the chancellery, Wolfang Schmidt, have been with him since his days as Hamburg's first mayor. The former Goldmann-Sachs manager and current State Secretary in the Chancellery, Jörg Kukies, joined the Scholz team during his time as Federal Minister of Finance. The list of longtime confidants in the Federal Chancellery could go on. Those who are loyal to Scholz will be rewarded with his loyalty. According to this principle, Scholz also survived deep political crises such as his failure in the election for the SPD presidency or the candidacy for chancellor that seemed hopeless for a long time. Scandals such as the City of Hamburg's handling of the Warburg Bank cum-ex fraud, which still raises questions, also reliably rolled off Scholz because he built a personal car park around himself that closed all the doors and windows in times of headwind lasts until the storm has died down.

Scholz' adherence to the principle of loyalty is a pillar of his political success. But it also fosters the inflexibility of a head of government who, deeply believing in his own intellectual superiority, is reluctant to be lectured. That's why it's unlikely that Scholz will let Lambrecht's expulsion be dictated from outside. Not even if their own coalition partners publicly count the minister. The chancellor corrects himself discreetly, if at all. The way he worked on his appearance: Scholz had vehemently rejected criticism of his sometimes brash or listless public statements in the spring. Nevertheless, since early summer the chancellor has spoken noticeably more often and in a friendlier way with the people, the Bundestag and the media.

He could solve the Lambrecht case in a similar way: if Faeser officially declares her top candidate in the Hessian state elections. At the latest in the event of a possible election victory for the Hessian SPD, Scholz would have to restructure his cabinet. On this occasion, Scholz could provide his fellow campaigner Lambrecht with another post or enable her to leave politics face-saving and voluntarily as part of a larger chair shift in the cabinet. The problem: The elections will not take place until autumn and, according to media reports, Faeser will want to remain in office until then in order to campaign with the bonus of an incumbent federal minister. At least until then, Lambrecht would have to hold out in the Bendlerblock without further damaging the SPD before the four upcoming state elections. To do this, she urgently needs political success and better advice in her appearance. The chancellor could take care of both - or admit a wrong appointment.