Listen to this article
Snow has been falling steadily for more than 24 hours, giving Copenhagen a white carpet. Outside the neo-baroque Christiansborg Palace, home to both the Danish parliament and the prime minister’s office, and known as Borgen, a workman is shovelling snow.
There is no 10 Downing Street-style entrance here, just an anonymous-looking doorway and a cramped lift to take visitors up to the PM’s office. Inside, there is an eerie calm, with just an occasional staff member shuffling down the wide corridors.
Three days after my visit, the Danish government is plunged into crisis. One of three parties in a minority coalition quits amid a public outcry over a DKr8bn ($1.4bn) investment by Goldman Sachs in state-owned energy company, Dong Energy. The turmoil leads to a seventh reshuffle for the centre-left government, which came to power in September 2011.
For now, however, all is peaceful. I’m ushered in past a secretary and standing in the doorway to her cavernous office is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s prime minister for the past two-and-a-half years.
Thorning-Schmidt, 47, is notable for many reasons: she’s a rare Social Democrat in a sea of centre-right administrations in Europe, and largely because of that is seen as a potential head of the European Commission in Brussels. Internationally, her profile has increased massively since December last year when her “selfie” with Barack Obama and David Cameron at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela went viral.
Throw in more pop culture references, such as the close parallels to the cult Danish TV series Borgen (which featured a female prime minister), the fact that she is the daughter-in-law of former UK Labour party leader Neil Kinnock, and her nickname of “Gucci Helle”, and international fascination with Thorning-Schmidt is intense.
She has decided we should go to the in-house canteen to get our lunch and then take the plates to her office. We go down the grand staircase, followed by a security man, and pass through what seems to be a storeroom with a table football game (“Nobody plays it,” says Thorning-Schmidt) and discarded kitchen equipment. The canteen is small and the choice of dishes is limited, though the food looks inviting.
We both take a starter of prawns and while I serve myself the warm meal of curry and rice, the prime minister chats with one of the chefs about, I think, some nice fish she ate. (Thorning-Schmidt talks to me in perfect English.)
Back upstairs, we eat at a big meeting table in her office. Thorning-Schmidt encouragingly declares: “I’m really starving.” We both polish off our prawns in a matter of seconds while making small talk about the weather. She says: “Well, when it starts snowing here it gets a bit confused,” a line I think of later in the week as the political storm rages in Copenhagen.
Thorning-Schmidt takes off her grey jacket and rolls up the sleeves of her purple jumper. The subtext is clear: now it’s down to business. Before lunch I had decided to start with the pop culture line of questioning and progressively get more serious.
How taken aback was she by the reaction to the “ selfie”? She was accused of engaging in behaviour unbecoming of a head of government at a memorial service, and of flirting with Obama. “Quite surprised,” she says as she finishes a mouthful of curry. “People were literally dancing and singing, and there was quite a good atmosphere. And all the heads of state and government, we didn’t get a fixed seat so we just had to basically find a seat when we got there. So everything was a bit loose and relaxed and then people were gathering in that corner where I was, not because of me but because of the guy I was sitting next to.
“There were loads of pictures being taken but it’s more of a fun way to take pictures because it brings people together in a more fun way and you always look quite silly in a selfie. So I like selfies.” She tucks into another mouthful.
Some defended the picture as a sign that politicians can let their hair down too, something the photogenic Thorning-Schmidt is keen to emphasise. “I’m a serious person, and I work very hard and meet with people on a very serious level, but I also like to have a laugh.”
But some of the criticism was vicious, with Andrea Peyser of the New York Post referring to Thorning-Schmidt as a “Danish tart”. “I think that said more about them than it did about us,” she replies, choosing her words carefully. “I just don’t take that very personally and it doesn’t affect me at all.”
But did the reaction show the difficulties faced by women in politics and the double standards of the media? “There’s definitely a difference between men and women in politics and it’s for sure that some of the write-ups would never have happened if I had been a guy. But there’s nothing new about that. It’s just the way it is and I don’t tend to spend a long time analysing these things.”
Thorning-Schmidt is used to standing out from the crowd. Her father was a maths and economics professor at a business school and Helle was a star student at her suburban high school outside Copenhagen. She went on to study political science and worked in Brussels for the Danish Social Democrats in the European parliament and then became international adviser to the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions before being elected a member of the European parliament in 1999.
The first Social Democrat in her family of conservative voters, Thorning-Schmidt became the first female head of the venerable Social Democrat party in Denmark in 2005 and its first female prime minister in 2011.
Like Margaret Thatcher before her, she has had to endure a huge amount of media attention over her handbags. Freddy Blak, then a fellow Social Democrat MEP, gave her the nickname “Gucci Helle” for one of her bags and it has stuck. “If you get a nickname that’s funny, it sticks, and that’s just the way it is,” she says simply, when I ask how she feels about it.
According to a book by Danish journalist Jakob Nielsen, Thorning-Schmidt’s initial reaction to the nickname was more extreme. He recounts that she burst into Blak’s office and said: “Don’t fucking go around and call me Gucci just because I don’t go round and look like such a bag of shit as you.”
The two politicians became friends and today she says of the incident: “That just shows that I keep it real. I said that to a colleague and it shows that I’m from the suburbs south of Copenhagen.”
On a trip to meet Danish troops in Libya shortly before becoming prime minister, Thorning-Schmidt was photographed wearing a camouflage bulletproof vest with high-heels and a bright red handbag. Berlingske, one of Denmark’s most serious newspapers, headlined its coverage, “Helle took her designer bag to war.”
As we talk about the high number of women in the public sector in the Nordic countries and the fact that Norway (where I live) has both a female prime minister and finance minister, she puts down her fork, with her main course only half-finished. I decide to return to one last question about that selfie. Why did it spark debate everywhere except in Denmark where the reaction was far more muted?
She looks intently at me: “To be honest, I don’t want to engage in that conversation. I think it’s a shame if you interview a female politician that the first half of the interview has to be spent on being female in politics. It sort of defies the object.”
I’m happy to oblige but it’s an awkward moment and I find myself missing the background noise of a restaurant. Swiftly moving on, I suggest that, given the austerity agenda in Europe in recent years and the lack of many fellow centre-left governments, it has not been the easiest time to be a Social Democrat.
“No, it hasn’t,” she agrees. She says there are two main reasons. One is that the financial crisis, which hit Denmark hardest of all Scandinavian countries, makes the extreme left’s position that “we hate all kinds of market economy” more appealing while the Social Democrats refuse to condemn it so fundamentally. Second, she argues that the “normal working class”, long the traditional base of her party, are no longer born into being Social Democrats.
“It’s still true that the market is a lousy master but a good servant, and that means that we still have to have a market economy but we have to control it and regulate it to the benefit of everyone. That’s still my line and that’s still how I feel about social democracy.”
Thorning-Schmidt took over as prime minister while Denmark was recovering from the after-effects of the crisis. Several Danish banks collapsed, while household debt levels were the highest in the world. Against that backdrop, the new government pushed through reforms that deeply upset centre-left voters, such as teaming up with the centre-right opposition to pass a tax package that benefited some of the biggest earners at the expense of pensions and unemployment benefits. Combined with a series of broken campaign promises, the tax measures led the Social Democrats to their lowest poll ratings in at least a century.
“It hasn’t been very easy here. It’s been very hard. But it has been very necessary. And I have the view that it should always be at the core of a Social Democrat’s agenda to do whatever we can to create a balanced economy. That means reforms,” she says.
She pushes away her plate, and continues by saying that the centre-right would like to use the crisis as an excuse to roll back the heavy role of the state in Denmark. She is emphatic that should not happen.
“What is there to do then? The only obvious thing is to be quite diligent in reforming the state. If people are paying high taxes [Denmark has some of the highest income tax rates in the world] they will expect the best health service in the world,” she says.
While her reforms have been pretty unpopular among the centre-left in Denmark, they have been more positively viewed from outside the country. Brussels insiders even mention Thorning-Schmidt as a possible Social Democrat candidate to head the European Commission.
But Thorning-Schmidt is having none of it: “I feel very privileged to be the prime minister of this fantastic country. There’s still so much to do. And, if I can, I will try to continue serving the Danes as prime minister.”
There have been worries about the longevity of her government ever since it was formed, and now the three-party minority coalition is an even more fragile two-party government. Only the Social Democrats and the Social Liberals remain.
I ask the PM about the pragmatism that must accompany a minority government (one that now only commands a third of seats in parliament). “If you want to govern, you have to govern with other parties. If you are a minority coalition, you have to find a majority for your policies. And it can be very hard because it takes long discussions. But, in many ways, is it not good that you have to create things in a pragmatic way and you have to listen to other points of view and find the best solution?”
It is a very Nordic approach. I mention that there’s a seemingly endless fascination around the world with the Nordic social model, and she replies in strikingly personal terms. “It is a very interesting model for the ordinary person, because what we have created here is that a kid from a divorced background from the south of Copenhagen like myself can actually, without any money from home or anything, take a degree, go to good schools, and become prime minister.”
She goes on: “I think I’m the prime minister, in the world perhaps, that lives the most normal life. I wash my own clothes and my children’s clothes.”
She offers to pour me coffee. When I ask for tea instead, I’m presented with the best selection I’ve yet seen in the region (tea is sadly synonymous with Earl Grey in the Nordic countries).
This British-style array of tea puts me in mind of her father-in-law. Has Lord Kinnock given her much political advice? “He has given me advice but the biggest thing that I take from him and my fantastic mother-in-law [Baroness Kinnock, a former MEP] is they always keep it real. They don’t get too stressed about things. They support each other.”
Thorning-Schmidt met her husband Stephen Kinnock while they were students at the College of Europe in Belgium; they married in 1996. He works in London during the week and she looks after their two teenage daughters on her own from Monday to Friday (they have no nanny). “I really appreciate the fact that I need to zoom into everyday life that is in many, many ways just like everyone else’s. I talk to the parents from my kids’ school, I go to parent meetings, I go to the shop and get my groceries, I cook, I talk to my neighbour.” (In a further illustration of her normalness, she is photographed that evening shovelling the snow from the pavement outside her house.)
Her husband is seeking to stand as Labour candidate in Aberavon, a Welsh constituency known for heavy industry such as the Port Talbot steelworks. Is she giving him advice? “We’re talking about everything. I’m fascinated by it. And I do think that the fact that I know politics and he knows politics makes our conversations about these things so much easier.”
The hour-long conversation is nearing an end. As we finish, she playfully mentions her uneaten food. “We ate far too quickly. I couldn’t talk and eat at the same time so I couldn’t eat my vegetables, which is obviously now your fault. But I did have some chocolate, which you didn’t, I notice.” I remedy this.
As we walk to the door, I realise we still have one thing to do: take a selfie together. “Yes, of course. With me it’s a big thing,” she says.
Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic correspondent
Prime ministerial office canteen, Copenhagen
Letters in response to this article: