Is Denmark’s political culture sick? Ask your spin doctor

Parliament votes to scrutinise spin doctors amid claims the opposition just pulled off the smoothest spin job yet

A unanimous parliament passed a motion last week to analyse the rules and regulations pertaining to the employment of special communications consultants – aka ‘spin doctors’ – by government ministers.

Ironically, the motion was spearheaded by the right-of-centre opposition, including Venstre – the very party that in 2004, when they were in power, wrote those rules, and whose very own spin doctors are at the centre of two current scandals concerning illegal leaks.

Also ironically, the left-of-centre governing parties, led by PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) – who was herself the personal victim of one of those illegal leaks – maintained steadfastly until just one day prior to the vote that there was nothing wrong with the rules, only with people who break them.

Until the vote, the heat was on some of Venstre’s top political figures – former tax minister Troels Lund Poulsen and former defence minister Søren Gade – for alleged prior knowledge of the leaks carried out by their respective spin doctors, Peter Arnfeldt and Jacob Winther.

Evidence was piling up fast enough to begin casting suspicion – and uncomfortable questions – as far up the chain of command as former PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen (V).

Critics began to ask, a little too insistently, if a culture of collusion and abuse of power had taken root in Venstre during its ten years in power.

But then, abruptly, those questions were swept off the table, because the opposition was calling for a comprehensive review of the rules regarding spin doctors employed by ministers.

“It reminds me of a bad play,” said Rasmus Jønsson, a political commentator for Politiken newspaper. “Politicians try to shift the focus away from themselves by aiming their guns at these spin doctors, who are after all just some middlemen who do precisely what the politicians tell them to do.”

Under pressure from Venstre and the other opposition parties, even Thorning-Schmidt capitulated and ended up supporting the opposition’s motion to review the rules.

Amidst mounting political one-upmanship, Dansk Folkeparti (DF) pressed to ban spin doctors entirely from the halls of Christiansborg and replace them with permanent civil servants who would serve consecutive governments, regardless of political persuasion.

It’s worth noting that the recent Taxgate scandal was facilitated by just such a supposedly apolitical civil servant, its permanent secretary, Peter Loft – a point that was not lost on MP Per Clausen (Enhedslisten).

“A number of the scandals we’ve had recently have involved permanent secretaries. So that’s not the solution,” Clausen said, with reference to Loft and the Immigration Ministry’s ‘stateless scandal’, which this spring cost Birthe Rønn Hornbech (V) her spot in the cabinet.

No other parties supported DF’s extreme proposal.

Despite the political theatrics, two recent polls suggest that voters know who really spins the decks.

A recent poll by Ugebrevet A4 showed that 57 percent of voters questioned believe that the politicians who employ the spin doctors are actually responsible for their actions.

The poll revealed an interesting difference, however, between left-wing and right-wing voters.

While 70 percent of centre-left supporters (Socialdemokraterne, Radikale, Socialistisk Folkeparti, Enhedslisten) thought the politicians were behind the spin doctors’ actions, only 44 percent of those supporting the centre-right (Venstre, Konservative, Dansk Folkeparti, Liberal Alliance) thought so.

Regarding particular scandals, 61 percent of voters questioned in a recent YouGov/metroXpress poll said they thought Poulsen knew beforehand that Arnfeldt, his spin doctor, was going to leak Thorning-Schmidt’s tax audit to the media, an illegal act. Some 42 percent of voters questioned thought that Rasmussen also knew about it.

Socialdemokraterne’s political spokesperson Magnus Heunicke called Venstre’s fresh interest in reviewing its own rules for spin doctors “hypocritical”.

“We don’t believe that a lack of rules is the problem,” Heunicke said. “Rigsrevisionen [the national auditor] endorsed those rules just last year. The problem is that some people have had problems sticking to the rules.”

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