Let’s face it: Now everybody in the Commentariat know that Lars Barfoed has been a dead man walking since June and nobody – absolutely nobody – has been reporting it before Barfoed announced his resignation as Conservative leader on Wednesday.
So here is what we know and what we don’t know:
1. The Conservative Party will have its third leader in six years. Espersen led the party from ten to five percent, Barfoed failed to reverse the trend and now Pape is charged with lifting the party back to – no, not its former glory – but the ten percent-mark.
2. We don’t know exactly when the process which led to Barfoed’s resignation began but unlike 1993, 1998, 1998 and 2011 the party has been able to conduct the change of leader without involving the media.
3. That a parliamentary group isn’t able to produce a political leader is, if not unheard of, then highly unusual in Danish politics. I think we would have to go back to the Social Liberals’ selection of Niels Helveg Petersen in 1976 and then the Liberals’ selection of Th. Madsen-Mygdal in 1926 to find parallels among the major parties. Unlike Søren Pape, Helveg and Mygdal had previous experience as MPs. Incidentally, the Swedish Social Democrats found themselves in the same predicament following the Juholt fiasco in 2012 and had to recruit a trade union leader for the post.
4. Søren Pape appears to have been second or even third choice behind Michael Ziegler and – possibly – Rasmus Jarlov.
5. Pape also appears to be well-regarded among party activists. A case of party organisation vs. parliamentary group – even if the members of the parliamentary group should be more concerned about their immediate prospects. The question is if the appeal to activists can be transferred to electoral appeal.
6. That said, the Conservatives did have some successes in the 2013 local election. Having credible candidates for local office (such as incumbent mayors) definitely helps in campaigns.
7. But: Local politics are different from national politics. Individual skills count for more, ideological positions for less than in national politics. Pape may be a more fiery politician than Barfoed (not that that says much) but will he be able to position the party in a way which is attractive to a larger portion of the electorate – remember that what attracts activists and what attracts voters are often two different things.
One final thought about the Danish Conservatives: Their most successful leaders – Christmas-Møller, Aksel Møller, Poul Sørensen and Poul Schlüter – may not have been deep thinkers or outspoken ideologues. In fact, this may have been what made them attractive to middle-class white-collar voters. They were able to strike a balance between business and wage-earner interests which made the party attractive to a relatively large section of the electorate. Under Bendt Bendtsen’s term in office, the party more or less reduced itself to a business interest party whose main programme consisted in demands for company tax cuts with calls for lower income taxes for the highest earners thrown in for good measure. This is a programme which at best attracts some ten percent of the electorate and the party will need to broaden its appeal – something it can only do by putting more of a distance to the Liberals (who are of course the Conservatives’ only realistic partner in the Folketing).
Similarly, the recruitment and training of political talent has been found wanting since the 1990s – something which the choice of a non-MP as new leader is an all too obvious indication of – and it needs at least a handful of MPs which do not come across as spent forces or below-par.
Oh – and one more thing: The fate of the German FDP must serve a as warning to the Danish Conservatives: Just because you have been a mainstay of the political system for generations doesn’t mean that you can’t work your way out of office and into political irrelevance by lacking credible policies and competent leadership. A Folketing without a Conservative group is a distinct possibility, if not in 2015 then at the following election.