The reader of this blog contacted me with an intriguing question, inspired by the placement of Helle Thorning-Schmidt at this week’s gala dinner in honour of Queen Margrethe II: How do we decide who the leader of the Danish opposition is?
Unlike the UK, Denmark has no formal position as leader of the opposition. Before 1901, the concept of “parliamentary opposition” was not recognised formally and after 1901 no-one seems to have cared about the position in a formal sense. The internal workings of the Liberal Party until 1945 may have played a role here: When the party was out of office, it was often difficult to figure out who the Liberals’ candidate for the position as prime minister was – consider 1910, 1920 and 1926 as cases in point. In 1932, 1935 and 1939 the party was hardly a contender for government office.
How about post-1945, then? If we look for the parliamentary leaders of the largest party not in government (shamelessly stolen from my anonymous correspondent), this is the list:
1945-1947: Hans Hedtoft
1947-1949: Knud Kristensen
1949-1950: Edvard Sørensen
1950: Erik Eriksen
1950-1953: Hans Hedtoft
1953-1965: Erik Eriksen
1965-1968: Poul Hartling
1968-1971: Jens Otto Krag
1971-1973: Erik Ninn-Hansen
1973-1975: Anker Jørgensen
1975-1977: Poul Hartling
1977-1979: Mogens Glistrup
1979-1981: Poul Schlüter/Henning Christophersen
1981-1982: Poul Schlüter
1982-1987: Anker Jørgensen
1987-1992: Svend Auken
1992-1993: Poul Nyrup Rasmussen
1993: Henning Dyremose
1993-1994: Hans Engell
1994-1998: Uffe Ellemann-Jensen
1998-2001: Anders Fogh Rasmussen
2001-2002: Poul Nyrup Rasmussen
2002-2005: Mogens Lykketoft
2005- : Helle Thorning-Schmidt
The list has some interesting cases when it comes to the eventual selection of prime ministers after a change of government or the de facto definition of the leader of the opposition:
Poul Hartling never made it to the Prime Minister’s Office after the 1968 election, if only because the Liberals lost the position as the largest centre-right party at that election, and neither did the Conservatives’ Poul Sørensen. Instead the Conservatives for a number of reasons decided to throw their weight behind the Social Liberal leader Hilmar Baunsgaard. Similarly, it can be argued that Baunsgaard was the Conservatives’ and Social Liberals’ first choice in 1973 (even if Mogens Glistrup was the leader of the second-largest party after the 1973 election).
Mogens Glistrup as prime minister? Not happening in this universe.
During the 1977-1979 parliamentary term, the question is if Henning Christophersen didn’t blow all of his chances for ever becoming prime minister by breaking the four-party centre-right cooperation in 1978 in favour of an ill-fated coalition with the Social Democrats. On the other hand, the choice of prime minister was still in the balance in the summer of 1982 – even if the odds may have favoured Poul Schlüter with 26 MPs to Henning Christophersen’s 20.
The 1993-1994 term was also pretty messy with Henning Dyremose as the original successor to Poul Schlüter before being outmanoeuvered by Hans Engell who in turn lost spectacularly to Uffe Ellemann-Jensen at the 1994 elections.
From 1994 onward, things have been more predictable – party because the Liberals have been significantly larger than the Conservatives while the Social Democrats have been out of office since 2001. But consider what would happen if the Socialists emerged as the larger of the two main left-wing parties in 2010 or 2011.
By the way: The Federal Republic of Germany also has some curious cases when it comes to identifying the leader of the opposition.