LONDON – When Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a “selfie” on her smartphone on Dec. 14 — like millions of people do every day — she doubtless had little idea of the commotion that would ensue. In the photograph, taken at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the most admired political leader of his generation, Thorning-Schmidt was flanked by a smiling Barack Obama on one side and David Cameron squeezing in on the other. And all three looked as if they were ready to Snapchat their larking pose to all their school friends.
But if the trio thought it was a moment of fun in a lengthy ceremony, the deed was greeted with a lack of amusement — not least by Michelle Obama, whose frosty glare suggested the leader of the free world would be residing in Chateau Bow Wow that evening. Elsewhere, commentators were quick to identify the incident as a sign of falling standards, declining morals and the imminent collapse of Western civilization.
Although both Obama and Cameron came in for criticism, it was Thorning-Schmidt who bore the brunt of the outrage. Described as a narcissist in the Daily Mail, she was also forced to defend her actions at home. “There were lots of pictures taken that day, and I just thought it was a bit of fun,” she told the Danish newspaper Berlingske. “Maybe it also shows that when we meet heads of state and government, we too are just people who have fun.”
While in Britain the public tends to like politicians to be statesmen and stateswomen first, and people a long way second, the Danes hold more to the Scandinavian ideal that politicians are just like the rest of us. The irony is that Thorning-Schmidt has been seen in Denmark as a little too unlike the rest of them.
In a previous incident in Norway, she asked the actress Sarah Jessica Parker for her autograph. As the Danish pundit and former spin doctor Kasper Fogh says: “She’s been criticized because she looks career-oriented and as if she’s having too good a time. And the selfie continues that narrative. But her real problem is that there is no clear view of what she wants politically.”
Since becoming Denmark’s first female prime minister two years ago, Thorning-Schmidt has had to contend with the media nickname of “Gucci Helle,” so called because of her fondness for designer clothes. As she phrased it, when asked by a party member how she expected to connect to the people in her expensive outfits, “We can’t all look like shit!” Of course, had she made a habit of turning up for parliament dressed in the sweater sported by Sara Lund in The Killing, even the most egalitarian Dane would have struggled to forgive her. The double standard is the standard one: few men are judged by their appearance; few women are not.
In Thorning-Schmidt’s case, the focus on her appearance has not been helped by Denmark’s other first female prime minister, the fictional one who appears in the TV series “Borgen.” By all accounts, Thorning-Schmidt is fed up with the comparisons made between herself and the character of Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Although she follows the show, she told one interviewer: “[It] doesn’t have so much to do with my reality. It’s like policemen watching a detective series. They always sit there saying, ‘We don’t do that.’ ” But in some fundamental respects they do do that.
As with the plot of “Borgen,” the finale of which aired recently, the central drama of Danish politics is building and maintaining coalitions. Thorning-Schmidt’s party, the Social Democrats, govern in coalition with the Social Liberals and the Socialist People’s party, but also rely on support from the Red-Green Alliance. Almost half the dialogue of “Borgen” is spent recounting the makeup of similar sounding coalitions.
And as with “Borgen,” TV debates play a significant role in party leaders’ lives. According to Danish political commentator Thomas Larsen, Thorning-Schmidt is “an excellent campaigner, brilliant at presentation and performs well in TV debates.” These are three of Nyborg’s strengths as well. But Nyborg is not a simple imitation — for one thing, the first series of “Borgen” was broadcast before the real-life version came to power.
Thorning-Schmidt became leader of the Social Democrats in 2005, when she was 38, only two months after becoming a member of parliament. And although she led the party to defeat two years later in the general election, in typical Danish style she landed the position of statsminister after her party recorded its worst-ever result at the 2011 election. It was the gains made by the smaller allied parties that put her in charge of a minority-government coalition.
Perhaps most impressive of all, she succeeded in maneuvering herself into power only days after a Danish newspaper published a leaked tax audit concerning Thorning-Schmidt and her husband, Stephen Kinnock, the son of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. It appeared that Kinnock, then a director of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, had declared himself nonresident in Denmark, and therefore not eligible for high Danish taxes (Kinnock now works in Britain for Xynteo, a strategic advisory firm). This was despite Thorning-Schmidt maintaining in a separate declaration for property rights that her husband lived in Denmark every weekend.
Under investigation, Thorning-Schmidt admitted to a “big, sloppy error” and the couple were eventually exonerated by the Danish tax authorities. However, in a double twist that was worthy of “Borgen” at its most dramatically inventive, the case refused to die. It emerged that the spin doctor for then-Tax Minister Troels Lund Poulsen had been accused of leaking the audit and was reported to the police. Poulsen, a member of the right-wing Venstre party, subsequently took a leave of absence from parliament.
The scandal, which became known as “skattesag” or “taxgate,” also implicated a senior aide of the former prime minister, “Luxury” Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who has since been the subject of an expenses scandal. But most bizarre of all was the revelation that Thorning-Schmidt’s personal accountant told the tax authorities that the reason for Kinnock’s absences from the home he shared with his wife was because he was gay or bisexual. As gossip began to surface, Thorning-Schmidt took pre-emptive action. Last year, in an interview with Politiken newspaper, she denied the claim about Kinnock’s sexuality. Just because a claim is repeated, she said, “it doesn’t make it true.”
On Dec. 13 it emerged that Kinnock is launching his own political career, seeking to be the Labour candidate for Aberavon. Speaking in London, Kinnock said that Helle supported his bid for the South Wales seat, which is held by Labour with an 11,000 majority.
The couple met at Bruges College of Europe in 1993, where she studied policy and public administration. Her parents split up when she was 10, and although her father was a university lecturer, she grew up in a working-class suburb of Copenhagen called Ishoj. She has referred to it as a model of “how the welfare society grew and created opportunities for people who hadn’t experienced that kind of prosperity.” Unfortunately, the area is now known for gang crime.
She married Kinnock in 1996 and they have two daughters. Nick Clegg, whom she knew from a stint working in Brussels, attended the wedding and she’s said to be on good terms with the Miliband brothers. She is also close to her parents-in-law, whom she has described as the “best in the world.”
Her rise to political stardom was rapid and culminated in a first year as prime minister in which she had to deal with the full effects of the economic crisis and take up the rotating chairmanship of the European Union. Earlier this year she was the only Nordic leader prepared to back Obama’s plan to launch a strike on Syria, before the American president stepped back from the brink.
The consensus of opinion seems to be that she has handled foreign affairs well but struggled to gain credibility at home, flip-flopping between different economic agendas at the behest of different coalition partners. “Everyone who knows her says she’s capable and likeable,” says Fogh, the pundit. “But there’s been a gap between expectation and delivery.” The selfie is a snapshot of the problem. It both reaffirms her image as someone who is most at home abroad, but also suggests that she can be a player with the big boys. If something similar had happened in “Borgen,” Nyborg would have somehow finessed a way through it, seemingly at once a woman of the people and a major international figure.
In a superficial sense, Thorning-Schmidt has taken another step toward the latter ambition. But as far as the former goes, she’s yet to convince the Danes that it’s what she really wants.