Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union descended into open civil war after the party’s poor showing in elections in the East German state Thuringia triggered savage attacks on Angela Merkel and the CDU leadership.
Longtime rivals lined up to criticise the chancellor and the woman seen as her favoured successor, party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. But one man who was once Ms Merkel’s fiercest critic, health minister Jens Spahn, refused to join the fray.
Instead, he bewailed an excessive focus on personalities in politics. “There’s just too much navel-gazing,” he told the Financial Times. “And that’s why the public at large isn’t really registering [the government’s] successes.”
Mr Spahn has more of an interest than most in ensuring they do. The 39-year-old has long had his eye on the chancellery. His stint in the health ministry could end up being a critical stepping stone on the way to that goal.
German politics is in a febrile state. Speculation as to who will lead the country in the post-Merkel era is intensifying — even though she still has nearly two more years to serve. The fragile “grand coalition” of CDU and Social Democrats is roiled by discord. The rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany has set alarm bells ringing.
Mr Spahn said the only way to fight this malaise was by winning back voters’ trust, and showing the government can solve their day-to-day problems. “People wonder when they’re going to get a doctor’s appointment, if the Berlin airport will ever get built, whether we’ll ever be able to control our own borders,” he said.
“What I’m trying to do is show that at least in the area I’m responsible for, health, we can make decisions that really make a difference.”
Even Mr Spahn’s critics admit that, judged on this criterion at least, he has made an impression. The minister has presented 18 draft laws in the past 18 months to a bewildered Bundestag, dealing with everything from reducing patient waiting times to cutting workers’ contributions to statutory health insurance.
In the process, he has won a host of new fans. Even Ms Merkel, long sceptical of Mr Spahn, admitted recently that he was successfully “taking on a lot of hot potatoes” and “getting a huge amount done”.
That is vastly enhancing his career prospects. “You can see that he aspires to greater roles, and that’s clearly one of the things that’s driving him,” said Rudolf Henke, a CDU MP and head of the main German doctors’ union.
But the whirlwind of lawmaking has prompted a backlash. Opposition parties accuse him of hyperactivity and say parliament cannot cope with the sheer volume of initiatives emanating from his office.
Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, health spokeswoman for the liberal Free Democrats, said Mr Spahn should slow down. “He wants to be seen as a man of action who tackles all the big issues,” she said. “But with some of his bills, speed trumps rigour.”
Mr Spahn acknowledged that the pace of work on health policy has picked up markedly on his watch. “It’s intense,” he said. “But that’s because we’re trying to solve problems that have just been ignored for the past 20-30 years.”
His rise to the front ranks of German politics has not been straightforward. He antagonised moderates in his party by strongly attacking Ms Merkel’s liberal immigration policy during the 2015-16 refugee crisis. In December he came last in the contest to replace her as leader of the CDU, losing out to Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, who quickly moved into pole position to succeed the chancellor in 2021.
Mr Spahn’s reputation as the coming man of German politics and the standard-bearer of the CDU’s conservative wing also suffered a blow when he was passed over to succeed Ursula von der Leyen as Germany’s defence minister when she was nominated to be the new European Commission president. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer got the defence job instead.
But after a string of mis-steps and snafus, many are wondering whether Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is suited to be chancellor. Other CDU heavyweights are sizing up their chances, among them Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and Friedrich Merz, a conservative who was the runner-up in last year’s leadership contest. Mr Spahn is also firmly in the frame.
While declining to speculate on his leadership ambitions, the minister has planted himself firmly in the public eye. He tours the world recruiting badly needed careworkers for German hospitals and old age homes. He recently visited four countries in sub-Saharan Africa to witness up close the fight against Ebola, and seized the opportunity to give a statesmanlike speech on German Unity Day at the German embassy in Kigali.
Meanwhile, the legislation continues to pile up. He has forced doctors to extend the opening hours of their practices. He has boosted staffing levels at care homes and sought to boost organ donations. He has introduced compulsory anti-measles jabs. Openly gay, he has banned “conversion therapies”, a practice aimed at turning homosexuals into heterosexuals.
He has also pushed trendy digital causes such as online doctors’ consultations, telemedicine and electronic patient records. “We want to be the first country in the world where doctors can prescribe health apps that will be covered by most health insurance schemes,” he told the FT. “That’s real innovation.”
But some of the changes are controversial. “Sometimes I wish he’d show a bit more care, especially when it comes to data protection,” said Barbara Lubisch, head of the German Psychotherapists’ Association, singling out his initiative on electronic records.
Others see his activist approach as much headline-grabbing ado about nothing. “The Spahn method is a lot of bluster, but few sustainable solutions,” said Maria Klein-Schmeink, the Greens’ spokesperson on health. “We see no real structural reforms but placebo laws that cost a lot of money — and these are funds that would be better spent elsewhere.”
Mr Spahn famously told his biographer that he was “well-known — but yet to become popular”. Asked whether he is achieving that goal, he dodged the question.
“I increasingly think that popularity is not the right criterion,” he told the FT. “Popularity comes and goes. What’s more important is that the public-at-large trusts you.”