In the Danish political gossip, much of the attention has focussed on the future of Lars Løkke Rasmussen who has been deputy chairman of the Liberal Party since 1998 and Interior and Health Minister since 2001. In the latter role, he prepared and organised the wholesale reform of Danish local government which was implemented at the start of this year and if there is anything like a manhood test in Danish politics, preparing and implementing a reform like that is it.
But what to do next? Mr. Løkke Rasmussen has no obvious rivals in the Liberal Party and at the same time he has always been loyal to Anders Fogh Rasmussen as party leader and prime minister. This means that he – provided he doesn’t suffer a serious political or physical accident – is the heir presumptive, perhaps even the heir apparent, as leader of the Liberals and as prime minister. Again, if we look at the political chattering, expectations are that Mr. Fogh Rasmussen will resign and hand over his offices to Mr. Løkke Rasmussen in a couple of years’ time.
As it is, the gossip was right this time: Lars Løkke Rasmussen has taken over the Finance portfolio which was vacated when Thor Petersen, a veteran of the Schlüter and Fogh Rasmussen governments, was presented as the new speaker of the Danish parliament.
But where do prime ministers come from politically? The argument has been that the Finance portfolio is a heavyweight portfolio and that no portfolio of a similar weight would be available to Mr. Løkke Rasmussen. On the other hand, Finance is a demanding and notoriously tricky portfolio. A finance minister, per definition, is locked in conflict with the other government ministers.
If we look at the Danish prime ministers since the de facto adoption of parliamentary government in 1901, we find a variety of political careers but some finance ministers have made it to the top. If we list prime ministers after their last portfolio before becoming prime minister, the list is as follows:
- No prior government office: J.H. Deuntzer, L. Holstein-Ledreborg, C.Th. Zahle, Otto Liebe, M.P. Friis, Anker Jørgensen, Poul Schlüter, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen
- Foreign Affairs: Erik Scavenius, H.C. Hansen, Jens Otto Krag, Poul Hartling
- Finance: Niels Neergaard, Vilhelm Buhl, Viggo Kampmann
- Interior: Klaus Berntsen, Knud Kristensen
- Social Affairs and Employment: Th. Stauning, Hans Hedtoft
- Agriculture: Th. Madsen-Mygdal, Erik Eriksen
- Ecclesiastics: J.C. Christensen
- Trade: Hilmar Baunsgaard
- Taxes: Anders Fogh Rasmussen
As it is, H.C. Hansen actually served two terms as finance minister: In the 1945 liberation government and in Hans Hedtoft’s first government between 1947 and 1950. On the other hand, the finance ministers who made it to the top could best be described as political accidents. Neergaard had to take over after J.C. Christensen had been forced to resign following the Alberti scandal while Buhl stepped in after Th. Stauning’s death in 1942 as Stauning’s chosen successor Hans Hedtoft had been blocked from leading offices by the German occupation authorities.
Finally, Viggo Kampmann emerged as the only real candidate after H.C. Hansen’s death in 1960 but he lacked a proper base in the labour movement and for both political and personal reasons his time in office was an unhappy one.
If we look at the issue in the opposite perspective, then Finance has yielded a number of prominent casualties. Thorkil Kristensen (1945-1947 and 1950-1953) was a brilliant technocrat who believed he was a politician but lost the internal battle with Erik Eriksen during the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Finance earned a reputation of killing politicians one after the other: Social Democrats Hans R. Rasmussen and Poul Hansen were trusted hands who both died in or shortly after leaving office and the Conservatives’ Poul Møller succumbed to both political and physical pressures and had to resign in 1971 with a ruined health. Henry Grünbaum survived the challenge – if only because he was sidelined by Jens Otto Krag and Anker Jørgensen.
Things got a little better in the 1970s, partly because the portfolio was divided into one dealing with budgeting (Finance) and another dealing with taxes, but Knud Heinesen and Svend Jakobsen were both worn out by the pressures of the position and left active politics. Henning Christophersen left Danish politics in 1984 to become a European commissioner after realising that he would never make it to the prime minister’s office while Henning Dyremose was sidelined by Hans Engell in a ferocious power struggle in the Conservative People’s Party.
Finally, Mogens Lykketoft tried and failed in the 2005 election after being the central actor in Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s governments during the 1990s. Lykketoft’s position was alleged to be so strong that political commentators occasionally joked that Nyrup Rasmussen was just the prime minister in Mogens Lykketoft’s government. It still didn’t bring Mr. Lykketoft any luck.
To sum up: Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s transfer from Interior and Health to Finance was expected but given the challenges ahead, he may find that being a Finance Minister can be a mixed blessing politically even if he is the prime minister’s chosen successor and does not have any serious political rivals in the Liberal Party.