The demise of Lene Espersen has been fascinating to watch – a bit like following a train wreck in slow motion. Fortunately for us, the only victims were Conservative MPs and there is still some time to make up for some of the losses.
Espersen’s fate has been extraordinary. As it is, she joins a select club of Danish party leaders who never managed to lead their party through one election campaign. If we leave aside the special circumstances during WW2, we have Edvard Sørensen, Henning Dyremose and Pia Christmas-Møller. Sørensen’s story has very little to do with politics while Dyremose and Christmas-Møller were the victims of internal struggles in … uhm … the Conservative Party. But I have to try very hard to see a Danish party leader going down in flames like Espersen has.
One reason may be that Lene Espersen was unsuited to the position as party leader but that again raises the question why she managed to get to the top – or why the party organisation allowed her to get to the top. (Perhaps a variation of Søren Mørch’s verdict on Knud Kristensen and Anker Jørgensen will give you a clue to my point of view: “The image of a party leader does not make a party leader”)
I am not an insider expert on the Conservative Party but I suspect that the crises in the 1970s and the 1990s have had some lingering effects. Many talented people would be wary of joining an organisation locked in internal conflicts. Equally, I wonder if Poul Schlüter during his time as Conservative leader put sufficient emphasis on developing the party organisation, even if he might be excused for having to deal with repeated parliamentary emergencies. As a consequence, the party has suffered from a lack of political talent from the mid-1990s onward and at some point in time this has to show.
My point here is that while the commentariat may be focusing on opinion polls, Lars Barfoed and the people around him would be well advised to consider not only future Conservative policies (I suspect that Bendt Bendtsen’s business-oriented line has run its course – and that Lars Barfoed has sensed the same) but also how potential political talents can be attracted, trained and kept active in the party organisation. This kind of activity is very much below the radar but organisation matters, even – or perhaps: especially – in today’s medialised politics.