When Markus Söder, the Bavarian regional leader, broke ranks with Angela Merkel over Germany’s decision to suspend use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Tuesday, it was more than just frustration at a flawed policy.
It was a sign Mr Söder, the chancellor’s loyal ally throughout the pandemic, believes his moment has come to seize the crown for himself.
“I know so many people who would take the AstraZeneca jab right now,” he told German television. “I would take it immediately.”
His message couldn’t have been clearer. Only last month Mrs Merkel rejected calls to have the jab live on television in order to counter German public scepticism.
Never mind that, as she pointed out, at the time the vaccine was not approved for her age group in Germany. What the public remembers is that she turned it down.
And now here was Mr Söder to say that he was prepared to do what she was not. He was telling Germans that he is the leader waiting in the wings, ready to steer them out of the current rudderless chaos.
German commentators have been asking for some time when some one will have the courage to do what Mrs Merkel herself did when she called on her own mentor Helmut Kohl to step down in the wake of a party corruption scandal in 1999.
That was the moment Mrs Merkel crossed the rubicon and seized control of her party, and eventually the chancellery for herself.
And now, it seems, Mr Söder’s defence of the AstraZeneca vaccine is his attempt to do the same. There will be no blood on the carpets. Mrs Merkel is stepping down as chancellor after September’s elections. This is all about who succeeds her.
At first, the pandemic seemed to rejuvenate Mrs Merkel. When she went on television to address the nation last year, she was able to connect with ordinary citizens in a way that eluded Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, and when Germany escaped the first wave with fewer deaths than its European neighbours, she basked in a nation’s gratitude, her approval ratings back to their old dizzy heights.
But all that seems a long time ago now. Her decision to entrust vaccine orders to the European Union has changed everything, leaving Germany months behind the UK and US, and struggling to catch up. After almost four months of lockdown her only message to Germans is that they must steel themselves for “three or four more difficult months ahead.”
For the first time in her long reign, Mrs Merkel seems dazed and unable to respond. Power and authority are visibly draining from her.
It is into that breach that Mr Söder hopes he can step. Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) elected Armin Laschet as its new leader in January, and for a time he seemed destined to succeed her as chancellor.
But a quirk in the German political system means parties nominate their candidates for chancellor separately from the leadership. And devastating results in regional elections at the weekend could have finished off Mr Laschet’s hopes.
Historic losses in two of the party’s traditional heartlands were probably more a verdict from voters on Mrs Merkel’s handling of the pandemic than Mr Laschet’s leadership, but he has been curiously absent in the wake of the defeats, not even bothering to show up in front of the cameras as the results came in on Sunday.
The party may well decide it can’t risk going into September’s national elections with such an invisible candidate for chancellor. As leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) Mr Söder is the only obvious alternative.
He has played a waiting game, letting his rivals see each other off. Friedrich Merz, the darling of German big business, had his hopes dashed when he was beaten to the party leadership by Mr Laschet.
The only other contender, Jens Spahn, has self-destructed with his miserable performance as health minister. He is facing calls to resign, and probably signed his own political suicide note when he announced Germany was suspending AstraZeneca vaccinations.
Mr Söder, ever the consummate politician, made a point of defending Mr Spahn in public even as he knifed him in the back with his pledge he was ready to take the vaccine.
Details of private party discussions carefully leaked to the German press suggest that it is Mr Söder who has been pressing for a quicker vaccine roll-out while Mr Spahn hesitated and Mr Laschet tried to silence his criticisms.
Mrs Merkel for her part has been more than willing to indulge the idea of Mr Söder as crown prince, travelling to Bavaria for a series of carefully staged photo ops with him at a baroque palace last year.
The two were not always so close. Mr Söder was one of the most vocal critics of Mrs Merkel’s controversial “open-door” migrant policy, and at one time he seemed ready to break with the CDU over it.
But he trims his opinions to the times: when his party lost votes to the Greens in 2018’s Bavarian elections he famously woke up the next morning a born again environmentalist, and in no time was pledging to save the endangered German bee.
The pandemic was no different. Sensing that Mrs Merkel had caught the national mood last year, he reinvented himself as her most dependable ally. “Anyone who thinks they can win the national elections by breaking with Angela Merkel is fundamentally mistaken,” he said as recently as January. “Merkel votes are only possible with Merkel policies.”
Yet break with her he has. His move over the AstraZeneca vaccine suggests he has learned a valuable lesson from the veteran chancellor: that when the moment comes, all that matters is who is ready to seize it.