Prime Minister Erna Solberg, already in search of a new fisheries minister, now needs a new education minister as well. In the midst of the Corona crisis, Solberg must also deal with yet another cabinet shake-up after one of her key government partners is suddenly dropping out of politics entirely.
Trine Skei Grande, embattled leader of the small but powerful Liberal Party (Venstre), told newspaper VG on Tuesday that she was calling it quits. She’s been under pressure to resign for months, if not years, but was able to hold on to power as late as last week after the party’s own election committee renominated her as its candidate to lead the party.
It had earlier been reported that Grande had been asked to step down voluntarily and clear the way for her deputy leaders Sveinung Rotevatn and Abid Raja to battle it out for the top spot. Grande didn’t do that, telling VG that she’d offered to step down if the committee agreed on a top leader candidate.
“But they never got back to me,” Grande told VG, leaving the committee in a difficult position and ultimately renominating her in the end, with Rotevatn and Raja nominated as her two deputy leaders, replacing two incumbents Ola Elvestuen and Terje Breivik. That meant Elvestuen had to turn over his ministerial post to Rotevatn and he was furious, even threatening to defy the election committee’s roster decision at the party’s annual meeting and challenge Grande’s nomination as leader.
Over the weekend, however, Grande seemed to realize that she has little support within her own party’s grassroots. She told VG that she not only decided to resign as leader of the Liberals but also as education minister. She won’t run for re-election to Parliament in 2021 either.
‘Best to let others have a chance’
“During the weekend I came to believe that it was best to let others have a chance, even though I don’t know who that will be,” Grande told VG. She revealed her decision to VG even before she let her own party’s election committee know that she’d changed her mind.
“Later today I’ll call the committee’s leader and say that they’ll need to form a new roster of candidates,” Grande said around midday. “I don’t think I can bring this together any longer, as I’d hoped. Now the election committee must make a new plan.”
She made the call, prompting the committee’s leader Per A Thorbjørnsen to tell Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “this came very brutally. I didn’t know until VG‘s bulletin came. I’m totally unprepared and haven’t even gotten through to the party’s secretary general yet, to clarify a formal procedure now.”
Thorbjørnsen said he thinks the committee (which had nominated Grande as leader, Rotevatn as first deputy leader and Raja as second deputy leader) must now reassemble to form a new roster. He couldn’t say whether Rotevatn or Raja would emerge as candidate for leader, or who would become a new deputy leader candidate.
Raja, who took over Grande’s post as Culture Minister after she became Education Minister in January, was attending the late entertainer Jahn Teigen‘s funeral in Tønsberg when the news broke. “I think it’s sad that Trine wants to quit,” Raja said, even though he’s had conflicts with her in the past and had challenged her position. “At the same time I have great understanding and respect that at some point, it’s enough. There’s been enormous pressure on Trine for a long time, especially after the unanimous roster the election committee had asked (party members) several times to support.”
There was little support for it. Asked whether he’ll be a leader candidate himself, Raja said he was “at the disposition of the election committee,” but had told Grande as late as that morning that he supported her. Rotevatn, viewed by some as Grande’s heir-apparent, headed into a party meeting at Parliament without commenting.
Low-profile Nybø moves up
The Liberal’s other government minister, Iselin Nybø, now has more cabinet seniority than either Raja or Rotevatn, who only joined the government in January. Nybø, who’s been a relatively low-profile Liberal politician now serving as business and trade minister, therefore will automatically move up as the Liberals’ senior minister and second only to Prime Minister Solberg as an acting party leader of sorts.
Nybø told reporters she’d known about Grande’s decision to step down since Sunday. “She’s done a formidable job during her 10 years as party leader,” Nybø said. “I have respect and understanding for the decision she’s made. She’s putting the party before herself.”
Others will argue that it’s taken a long time for Grande to do so. The Liberals have been losing voters for years and currently hold less than 3 percent of the vote according to the most recent polls. The party won 4.4 percent in the last election in 2017, however, enough to give it a swing vote in Parliament. Grande kept the party out of the government until 2018, when it joined Solberg’s non-socialist coalition that included Solberg’s Conservatives and the Progress Party. The Christian Democrats also joined the government in January 2019, giving the coalition a long-sought majority in Parliament, but Progress withdrew in January of this year. That left Solberg with a three-party minority government once again, all of which have been sliding in the polls.
Solberg is expected to announce new ministers after Friday’s weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace, when the monarch must formally appoint them. Solberg already has to fill the fisheries minister’s post, after her party colleague Geir Inge Sivertsen was forced to resign because of various conflicts of interest and unwarranted pay issues. Grande will return to Parliament to serve out the remainder of her term that runs until the next national election in 2021, and then seek a job outside politics for the first time since she was initially elected to Parliament in 2001.