Angela Merkel no longer even tries to conceal her disdain for vice chancellor Philipp Rösler, the head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, her junior coalition partner.
At the New Year's reception last week in Bellevue Palace, the official residence of President Christian Wulff, she was all smiles -- until the youthful FDP chairman showed up. When he positioned himself next to her, her expression became a picture of indifference bordering on contempt.
Merkel has been watching the steady decline of the FDP with mounting frustration. She would like to keep them as her partner in a center-right coalition after the 2013 general election, but the FDP's slide in support has been so dramatic that it may not even clear the 5 percent hurdle needed to win seats in parliament.
She likes the youthful Rösler, 38, who replaced Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as FDP chairman last May and who has been battling to lead the party out of the doldrums. But she regards him as a political novice who keeps on making mistakes -- and doesn't appear to be learning from them.
She has lost hope that he can deliver the recovery the FDP desperately needs, and she has decided to turn her back on the FDP and focus solely on the interests of her own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and on securing a third term as chancellor.
Some in her party are quite open about it. "The relationship between the conservatives and the FDP is poisoned," says CDU lawmaker Josef Schlarmann. The FDP, he says, has become virtually irrelevant to her in terms of energy and European policy.
FDP members are taking a similar view. "It's obvious that Merkel doesn't want the FDP to be successful in the coalition," said Hans-Ulrich Rülke, FDP floor leader in the Baden-Württemberg state assembly.
Merkel's Tax U-Turn Wrong-Footed FDP
Merkel's strategic goal is to make the CDU the strongest party by far in the 2013 election. She wants to make sure that no government could be formed without the CDU as dominant partner. And she is ready to accept a rift with the FDP if need be.
What that means in practical policy terms became evident on Jan. 9 at the news conference following her meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had demanded a speedy introduction of a financial transaction tax in the euro zone.
Until that Monday, the German government had insisted that Britain, as home to Europe's largest financial center, would have to adopt the tax for it to be viable. It was a position shared by the FDP, which says any such tax must be implemented by the full 27-member European Union.
But she evidently changed her mind and told reporters at the post-summit news conference with Sarkozy that "we could imagine such a tax in the euro zone." She couldn't have made any clearer how little she cares about the FDP.
FDP nerves had already been frayed by the collapse of the regional government of Saarland a few days earlier, on Jan. 6, when the CDU governor of the small south-western state, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, ended the three-way coalition with the FDP and Greens, and blamed FDP in-fighting for her decision.
News of the Saarland debacle broke just as Rösler was holding a speech at an FDP party conference to signal a fresh start for the party. Many in the FDP suspect that the timing was a perfidious attack by Merkel.
That's not true; Merkel herself was surprised by the unfortunate sequence of events that day. Nevertheless, it all fitted in with the picture of a chancellor who has evidently lost interest in her coalition partner.
Despite Merkel's insistence that she wasn't to blame for the coincidence, the FDP wouldn't put anything past her anymore. "Kramp-Karrenbauer wouldn't have thought of doing something like that on her own," says Rülke. The FDP's floor leader in the Hesse state parliament, Florian Rentsch, put it even more bluntly: "This political disgrace will remain burnt in the FDP's memory for ever."
Relations between the two parties have hit rock bottom and there is nothing to suggest they will improve over the remainder of the current legislative period. Even CDU politicians like conservative parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder who have worked well together with the FDP in the past no longer believe the alliance has much of a future. From the conservatives' point of view, that means it's everyone for themselves.
Rösler Under Pressure in FDP
Rösler doesn't know how to respond to this. After euroskeptics in the FDP lost an internal vote seeking to block the permanent euro-zone bailout fund, he had hoped calm would be restored in his party and in the coalition. Now he is being forced into a fight with the chancellor. And as so often, he's failing to hit the right tone.
FDP finance experts Volker Wissing and Otto Fricke advised him not to completely reject Merkel's new stance on the financial transaction tax. They said it would be unwise to pin himself down, because the tax was likely to be introduced whether he liked it or not. But Rösler felt under pressure from the conservative wing of the party. Rülke had last week urged the party leadership to "show more backbone" and publicly called on Rösler not to shy away from conflict with the CDU on issues such as the financial transaction tax.
In an apparent attempt to jettison his reputation for being too timid, Rösler opted to be combative, and said: "I repeat, such a tax must apply to all EU states, not just to the euro states." He may have the backing of most of his party with this position. But he forgot to check first with the party's most important election campaigner, Wolfgang Kubicki, the head of the FDP in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which will hold an election on May 6.
Experienced politicians know that campaigners are always right. Shortly after Rösler had made his position clear, Kubicki said he wouldn't rule out launching a transaction tax that only applied to the 17 euro-zone members. "I don't think it's wise to enter into a conflict with the conservatives on this issue," said Kubicki in a swipe at Rösler which once again fuelled doubt about the chairman's leadership.
Rösler was caught in a quandary. He couldn't publicly contradict Kubicki, because he needs him to be successful. If the FDP fails to win enough votes to remain in the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament in May, Rösler's days as party leader will be numbered.
If that happens, Merkel won't be shedding any tears.