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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Hans-Christian Plambeck
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The learning machine: Angela Merkel

Her mentor Helmut Kohl called her his assassin. She is ruthless with those who betray her. She is also now being described as the leader of the free world. So, who is the German chancellor and what’s next for her?

World news these days is dominated by posturing tough guys – Vladimir ­Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Amid all the pose and swagger, one politician stands out. Quiet and understated, she is now the West’s longest-serving leader. No tweets, no gossip, no hissy fits or saucy photos: this is Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany since 2005, who will be seeking a fourth term in the elections this September. With the German economy strong and the refugee crisis abating, she is favourite to win once again.

Merkel’s unshowy style has made it easy to overlook her international prominence. But now, in the summer of 2017, with Trump’s United States turning in on itself, the transatlantic alliance in the balance, the European project in doubt, British politics upended and Russia at loggerheads with the West, Merkel has become the fulcrum of the international system. Not everyone likes her, but niemand kann um sie herum: nobody can get around her. Not Theresa May, not Trump – not even Putin.

This week, on 7 and 8 July, she hosts the G20 summit in Hamburg, where Trump will encounter Putin for the first time in a tête-à-tête stage-managed by Merkel. Yet Germany’s quiet strongwoman remains an enigma. Where did she come from? What motivates her? What does she want? And where is she going?

The eldest of three children, Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg, in the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1954. Her mother, Herlind, was an English teacher and her father, Horst Kasner, an official of the Lutheran Church. Soon after Merkel’s birth, her father responded to a call for more clergymen in the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic (GDR). He moved his family first to Quitzow in Brandenburg and then, three years later, to Templin, north of Berlin, where he took up a post at the local theological seminary. He joined the GDR’s state-controlled Federation of Evangelical Pastors, earning himself the nickname “Red Kasner” among his Western colleagues.

In East Germany the Kasners were both servants of their flock and members of an elite. They enjoyed the privileges of the state Church (which included access to Western newspapers and clothes) as well as parcels from relatives in the West. But they also lived under the persistent suspicion of the communist regime. Religious orga­nisations represented an alternative value system and were seen as potential vehicles of Western intelligence.

Merkel later recalled the GDR as a grey and confined place; she remains haunted by the first images she saw of the Berlin Wall. But she also says she enjoyed her childhood, and as a teenager she chose to adapt to the logic of the political situation. Her aim was to get on without being noticed. In this vein, despite being a vicar’s daughter and getting confirmed in the Church, she also chose to join the communist youth movement.

According to her teachers, Merkel was a ferociously motivated student, brilliant, tenacious and ambitious. She took no interest in clothes, fashion or school romances. Instead, there were three successive top performances in East Germany’s Russian language Olympiad. By the age of 15, she was the national champion in the language of the occupiers.

After moving to Leipzig University to study physics, she met and married a fellow scientist, Ulrich Merkel, but they were divorced in 1982. Subsequently she earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry in Berlin. During the 1980s she worked as a researcher at the Academy of Sciences in East Germany: the only woman in her field, a pattern that would be repeated throughout her life. It is worth stressing that Merkel was a theoretical scientist, not an experimentalist. She tackles problems methodically, running various scenarios, weighing up risks, trying to anticipate reactions and then making an informed choice. It’s an approach she has translated into politics, and calls Dinge vom Ende her denken: to think about things from the end result.

The young Merkel was self-conscious and reticent, though this was balanced by flashes of irony and self-deprecation. Seeking to rise in a man’s world, she turned these traits into her trademark style. Her attire reflects this. She is a woman who wears the same blazer, in more than 50 colours, always buttoned up, with flat, simple shoes. She never appears with a handbag. No showiness, no emotional display – no Thatcherite tantrums or cover stories for US Vogue.

This may seem an unpromising perfor­mative strategy for someone who aspires to make her way in public life, but it aligns Merkel with a deeply rooted trait of postwar West German political culture: a cult of sobriety in reaction to the disastrous seductions of Hitler’s charismatic leadership. She projects an untheatrical sincerity that millions find believable and reassuring. She often stands in the background – observing, learning and biding her time. She plays a long game, sitting out disputes until she is ready to make a decisive intervention.

***

Merkel entered politics as East Germany was collapsing; her rise was driven more by external forces than by her own actions. As street protests grew in late 1989, she did not join in. Instead, she gravitated to the liberal-conservative group Democratic Awakening, which was soon absorbed into the Allianz für Deutschland – an electoral coalition of centre-right parties led by the GDR wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), West Germany’s governing party. In spring 1990, after the Allianz won the first free East German elections, Merkel was unexpectedly chosen to be the new government’s deputy spokeswoman. And so she found herself looking west, towards Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who by now was brokering the reunification of the two states.

In unified Germany’s first national elections in December 1990, Merkel gained a seat in the Bundestag as a CDU MP. Kohl immediately saw her as an asset in his first all-German cabinet – a clever 36-year-old woman, an Ossi (easterner) from a church family background with no Stasi ties. He appointed her minister for women and youth, the first female East German to hold any post in cabinet.

Within two years, Merkel had gone from being an obscure GDR research scientist in East Berlin to front-line government politics in Bonn. She used her ministerial opportunity quietly and effectively. She was no feminist – indeed, not particularly interested in her portfolio – but she had an instinct and appetite for power.

Though Kohl belittled Merkel by ­calling her mein Mädchen (“my girl”) from the East, he helped her ascend the ranks. In 1994 he made her the minister for the environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety, a role that gave her a higher international profile. Merkel convened the first UN Climate Change Conference in Berlin in 1995 and two years later led the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only binding global climate protection treaty to date. (She remains passionate about climate change, which is why she was unable to conceal her fury when last month Trump sabotaged a common G7 line on global warming.)

In government Merkel always seemed in a hurry, never made small talk, and ­often looked down on the “boys in the playground” – as she privately referred to her beer-drinking, ever-politicking male colleagues. She was feared for her directness and notorious for sacking those who opposed her or betrayed her trust. But she was also respected for her ability to distil a mass of information and admired for her self-­discipline and work ethic.

In the 1998 federal elections, Kohl was defeated by the young and dynamic Social Democrat (SPD) leader, Gerhard Schröder. Fourteen months later, still reeling from its defeat, the CDU was engulfed in a campaign finance scandal. Kohl was implicated but few in the party dared challenge him. Merkel, however, did, writing a cutting opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that urged the CDU to break with its old “war horse” Kohl. It did just that: and on 10 April 2000 the CDU elected her as the first female party leader in Germany. “I brought my killer close to me,” a bitter Kohl remarked later. “I put the snake on my arm.”

In the 2005 election the CDU secured a narrow victory, and Merkel formed her own government in coalition with the Social Democrats. The steely woman from East Germany was inaugurated as the Federal Republic’s first female chancellor.

***

Ever since the Second World War, “Europe” has been central to Germany’s identity and foreign policy. But unlike Kohl or West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer – men of the Rhineland, dedicated to reconciliation between Germany and its old enemy France – Merkel’s approach to the European project has not been particularly idealistic or historical. She came into the EU as an East German outsider who could not feel any special emotional bond either to the idea or to the institution.

From her pragmatic perspective, “Europe” secures peace and allows an integrated Germany to flourish economically. For this reason, the EU as a political and an economic entity must be repaired and held together. “If the euro fails, Europe fails,” she declared in 2011, at the peak of the Greek financial crisis. She went about ensuring the euro’s survival her own way. Sensitive to German public opinion, she had no desire to bail out Athens. Eventually, after long silences and many zigzags, she gave in to fellow EU leaders and Barack Obama, who warned that, without a financial rescue package, Greece would default on its debts and be forced out of the euro – pulling down the currency union and perhaps the EU, too. But Merkel insisted that in return for credits, Greece (and other weak southern European economies, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal) must accept German fiscal standards: thrift in public and private life and strict budgetary discipline, overseen by the EU.

The euro had been saved but at a cost to both sides. The austerity imposed on the debtors, especially Athens, created politically intolerable levels of unemployment. Germany was perceived as the bully of the continent. Cartoons in Greece showed Merkel’s face wearing Hitler’s moustache.

Despite early criticism at home, saving the euro ultimately earned Merkel strong public backing, because she had brought the crisis under control without too much damage to German living standards. In the process, a somewhat derogatory yet oddly affectionate new verb had been born – merkeln: to sit tight and say little. It rhymes with werkeln: to tinker. But in the end tinkering may not be such a bad thing.

The crucial role Merkel played in the Greece/euro saga made her acutely aware of her responsibilities as a German who was now, in effect, the leader of Europe. And it was in this dual position that she faced the refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015.

Confronted by a sudden mass migration into Europe after the collapse of the Arab spring and the Syria catastrophe, the EU failed to agree a unified response. Front-line states in the south-east, especially Greece and Hungary, were overwhelmed; big, rich states in the north-west, notably Britain, believed they were insulated against the human tide, and chose to stand aloof.

Motivated at first by compassion, Merkel pursued a different strategy. Dismissing demands from conservatives to close Germany’s borders, she announced in September 2015 that “Germany’s basic right to asylum has no upper limits”. She appealed to her fellow citizens, who had benefited hugely from international help after the Second World War, and urged them to welcome the needy of the 21st century, shunned by other Europeans. “If we now have to start apologising for the fact that we are showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country,” she said.

The “no upper limit” was swiftly interpreted as a “refugees welcome” message. Germany ended up with over 800,000 newcomers from the Middle East in 2015 – this in a country of 80 million which already had three million residents of Turkish origin. (It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands more from the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans entered the country illegally.) Many Germans responded positively by helping the refugees at reception centres. Yet conservatives in her party often saw Merkel as weak and reactive. Such criticism in turn bolstered the growth of right-wing populism.

During 2016, as reports of crime, rape and child marriages filled the tabloid newspapers, thousands of people gathered at anti-immigrant rallies. After the Berlin terrorist attack of December 2016 – when a failed Tunisian asylum-seeker crashed a hijacked lorry into a Christmas market, killing 12 people – Merkel’s approval rating dropped to 57 per cent, almost 20 points lower than before Europe’s migrant crisis erupted. Looking towards her re-election year, CNN predicted: “Angela Merkel may be the biggest loser of 2017.”

Her risk-taking over the refugees was more calculated than it appeared. Merkel had acted out of conviction, given her “Christian empathy”, as she put it, and her sensitivity to Germany’s Nazi guilt. There was also a distinctively East German element: when Hungary used razor wire to fence out migrants from the south, it brought back her darkest memories of the walled-in GDR.

More pragmatically, she felt confident that the German economy was robust enough to absorb the cost of hundreds of thousands of refugees and believed that there would be long-term benefits from an influx of young, skilled workers for a country whose population was projected to fall. Above all, she feared, as with the euro crisis of 2011, that the controversy over refugees could tear Europe apart unless Berlin showed strong leadership.

Merkel has a capacity to recognise mistakes and discreetly learn from them; some German commentators have nicknamed her “the learning machine”. There was no overt apology for her refugee gamble but a subtle shift of direction with one eye on the ballot box. Seeking to build a new consensus within her party, she told the CDU’s annual conference in December 2016, to loud applause: “A situation like the one in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not, and must not, be repeated.”

She promised speedier asylum decisions, so that those who failed to qualify would be sent back more promptly. She also stressed that those migrants who stayed would not be permitted to develop a “parallel society” but be pushed towards full integration: “Our law takes precedence before tribal rules, codes of honour and sharia.”

Today, six months on, continental Europe is more stable after the far right’s defeat in the Netherlands and Emmanuel Macron’s presidential and parliamentary triumphs in France. And following significant CDU victories this spring in three regional elections, Merkel is strongly favoured to win another term as chancellor.

What’s more, with Britain exiting the EU, Merkel is keen to “relaunch” Europe. Calling for a “historic reconstruction of Europe”, she and Macron agreed in Berlin on 15 May to draw up a joint roadmap of how to deepen EU integration and make the eurozone more resilient. After her fraught relationship with the president’s lame-duck predecessor François Hollande, the Franco-German “couple” are back in business.

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Dominant in Europe, resurgent at home, Merkel has also been operating on the global stage with growing confidence. Her greatest challenge here is the re-emergence of Russia as a would-be world power.

Merkel and Vladimir Putin (the de facto lord of the Kremlin for the past 17 years) share a long history in power – and go further back than that: he helped run the “dictatorship” under which she had grown up. In the back of Merkel’s mind Putin is still the KGB officer who spent five years in Dresden as a functionary of the occupying power.

These two leaders have held dozens of meetings and talked for hundreds of hours over the phone, conversing easily in German and Russian. Merkel has always sought to push Russia and Putin towards a relationship rooted in rules, principles and common interests – not one based on emotion or personal chemistry. Putin, in turn, has looked for a partner who would strike good economic and political deals and help keep his country at the international top table.

Putin had found such a partner in Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schröder. In 2005 they struck a deal for a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea; as soon as Schröder left office, Putin installed him as chairman of the board of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant. In 2014 Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in the Russian leader’s home town of St Petersburg, just weeks after the Russia-Ukraine crisis had erupted.

Merkel is repelled by alpha-male bonding (Kohl and Boris Yeltsin sweating it out in the sauna), not merely because she is a woman but as a matter of principle. And modish sympathy for Putin (Putinverstehertum) on the extremes of left and right in German politics is anathema to someone who has never underestimated Russian power. Indeed, Merkel has always seen through Putin. There was a telling moment soon after the 9/11 attacks when Putin addressed the Bundestag, pledging solidarity with the Americans and presenting his vision of Russia’s European destiny. German MPs were enthralled by his delivery – in fluent German – and by his apparently pro-Western message, and gave him a standing ovation. Merkel, too, stood up but she whispered to her neighbour that Putin’s German was that good “thanks to the Stasi”.

For his part, Putin introduced an element of mind games into their relationship. In 2006, when Merkel made her first official visit to Moscow, he gave her a stuffed toy dog. The Kremlin was aware through its intelligence channels that Merkel was nervous around dogs, having been bitten by one a decade earlier. The following year, during talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin had his large black Labrador, Koni, run into the room while he and Merkel were sitting across from each other. Though she did not flinch, photos of the meeting show her looking awkward as the dog buried its head in her lap. Merkel soon got her own back, telling the media: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man . . . He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

Their personal edginess became central to world politics in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. For Merkel, Putin had now crossed a red line. Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Yet Putin claimed, after a referendum rubber-stamped the annexation, that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination” – just as the Germans did during reunification in 1990. This analogy did not go down well in Berlin. And relations with the West grew even worse after Putin presented the subsequent Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine as an assertion of his country’s rights as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”.

Merkel considered Russia’s actions a flagrant breach of international law. She rallied the EU, together with Barack Obama’s America, to impose sanctions on Russia, precipitating a financial crisis in Moscow. With the rouble losing almost half its value within two years and a collapse in the price of oil – on which Russia’s economy depends – the country slid into a recession.

The Ukraine situation remains deadlocked but Merkel’s position has evolved over the past couple of years. Initially, with Obama and David Cameron happy for her to take the lead, she tried, with French support, to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. This effort became harder to sustain after Russia extended military support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In response, Merkel began to toughen her stance. She reprimanded Putin for siding with Assad, stating: “I think we’re very close to war crimes.” Yet she also invited him to Berlin in October 2016 to resume dialogue and find a way out of the Ukraine quagmire.

After no progress was made in the Berlin talks, she insisted that dialogue had to be balanced by deterrence and committed German troops to Lithuania under Nato’s build-up in the Baltic states. Her position towards Russia hardened further after Donald Trump’s election win. The US president’s inability to provide steady global leadership and his unwillingness to reaffirm Washington’s unqualified commitment to Nato collective defence has forced her to fill the vacuum. This was clear when she met Putin at his summer residence in Sochi on 2 May – her first visit to Russia in two years.

By accepting the Russian leader’s invitation, Merkel risked seeming weak, but in the talks she refused to soften her positions. Putin did the same, of course, and so the summit yielded nothing on Ukraine or Syria – or, indeed, on anything at all.

However, Merkel unexpectedly blasted Putin in the press conference. Deliberately eschewing diplomatic comfort words such as “good” or “constructive”, she referred merely to their “extensive talks”, from which, she added sarcastically, “if nothing else, at least one learns something new”. As she spoke, Putin looked ­uncomfortable, staring at the ceiling or scrutinising the floor. She ended the press conference with a barbed but clear warning. When Putin was asked to comment on accusations of Russian meddling in recent Western elections, notably in the US and France, he replied indignantly: “We never interfere in the political life and the political processes of other countries.” Merkel said drily that she was well aware that “hybrid warfare plays a role in Russia’s military doctrine” and warned that her government “would act decisively if such moves were detected” when Germany went to the polls.

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In Merkel’s valedictory address at the funeral of Helmut Schmidt in Nov­ember 2015, she described the former West German chancellor in words that mirrored her own approach to leadership. Schmidt, she said, was “convinced that a decision was only ripe once it had been thought through and infused with reason”. Perhaps mindful of her gamble over the refugees, she added that he had been willing “to pay the highest price, because he always factored the risk of failure into his actions – including even the risk of losing his chancellorship”.

She also praised Schmidt as an international statesman who in the 1970s already understood that the world was becoming “more open” and that this therefore demanded “greater global co-operation” on matters such as finance, security and climate in such forums as the G7 and G20.

Unlike Schmidt, however, Merkel has to operate as a woman in a man’s world. Her German nickname, Mutti der Nation, initially sounded somewhat deprecatory: Kohl’s little “girl” had grown up into Germany’s “mummy”. Sexist alpha-male politicians from Silvio Berlusconi to Donald Trump have found it hard to assimilate her into their patriarchal universe. And CDU traditionalists have long worried about whether the party’s Catholic, conservative, middle-class values were being undermined by a pinko, Protestant, Ossi woman.

Yet over time the more positive connotations of Mutti have filled the headlines: calm, good-hearted and dependable. Her courage in standing up for international ideals in an increasingly nationalistic era is widely acknowledged. Few dispute that she is now the most powerful defender of Western liberal values. Or, as the ­Washington Post put it, the “leader of the free world”. 

Kristina Spohr’s most recent books are “The Global Chancellor: Helmut Schmidt and the Reshaping of the International Order”; and, as co-editor, “Transcending the Cold War” (both Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit