As if dealing with an energy crisis, a war and a looming refugee influx weren’t enough right now: Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre also had to reshuffle his government ministers on Monday and start hunting for a new deputy leader for his struggling Labour Party. Problems facing his still-new government just keep piling up.
Støre took over as leader of Norway’s Labour-Center minority government coalition in October. Now, just five months later, he’s already lost one of his most trusted ministers to scandal and faces yet another power struggle within his constantly quarreling party.
Hadia Tajik, who held the important position of Labour Minister in Labour-led government, resigned her ministerial post last week after she became the latest top politician found to have misused generous housing benefits. She also agreed to pay extra tax to make up for “mistakes” she made 15 years ago.
Tajik hung on, however, to her other position as one of two deputy leaders of the party itself and was even tipped to take over as leader of Labour’s parliamentary delegation.
It soon emerged that she lacked the confidence of enough colleagues to take on the parliamentary leader post. Then came more media reports that became her undoing: Just a week after newspaper VG reported on the housing benefit exploitation (which has hit many other MPs too), state broadcaster NRK reported that Tajik should have paid tax on income from a housing unit she’d rented out to her brother.
‘Mistakes and incorrect evaluations’
On Sunday night, Tajik thus resigned her post as deputy party leader, too. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) could report that Tajik, in a letter to Labour’s central board of directors, wrote that she acknowledged that “I have made both mistakes and incorrect evaluations.” Her supporters claim she was the victim of a power struggle and still-angry fans of former deputy leader Trond Giske, who had to resign after charges of sexual harassment during the Me-too scandal. Tajik had contributed towards Giske’s demise and now his supporters were contributing to hers.
She wrote that she had initially intended to continue as deputy party leader, a position that’s often a springboard to the top post and even the prime minister’s office. “Since then, I have asked myself whether that was a correct evaluation,” Tajik wrote, adding that she could see how her past actions had become both “a burden and a disappointment” to her party colleagues and the party itself. “That’s my responsibility,” she wrote. “I apologize for that, and I have concluded that I will resign as deputy party leader.”
Støre had little choice but to accept her resignation of her second post in less than a week. He also lost one of his own most important supporters who held one of a Labour government’s most important posts. Tajik had already proven to be a quick and efficient reformer of labour law and regulations, with new demands on employers aimed at giving workers more job security.
It all left Støre with the need to replace her within his government and, eventually, within the party. It’s been a steep fall from grace for Tajik, long seen as one of Labour’s bright young stars, and what political commentator Hege Ulstein has called a “catastrophe” for Støre himself. He was also was facing questions in the media Monday about his screening process when he formed his first government last fall. Labour Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng said on national radio Monday morning that “thorough processes are necessary … and you can never be thorough enough.”
What’s worse for Støre is that he’d thought she could continue as deputy leader of the Labour Party, and didn’t realize that her “mistakes” had made others lose confidence in her, not least several top trade union officials who’d prompted her resignation as minister. He’d even said he was glad she would continue a deputy leader.
On Monday he was reduced to saying he was at least still glad that she still “wanted to continue working for Labour and our policies from the Parliament.” As an elected official she can’t resign from her seat in Parliament and only voters can fire her, unless she’s convicted of any crimes. That’s unlikely, even though she didn’t pay all the taxes she should have.
Støre also had to seek a special meeting with King Harald V on Monday to formally replace Tajik as labour minister, right on the eve of annual spring labour union negotiations. He decided to transfer Marte Mjøs Persen from her current post as Oil & Energy Minister to take over for Tajik as minister of both labour and inclusion. He tapped MP Terje Aasland, currently a Member of Parliament for Labour, to take over Persen’s post at the oil ministry.
Støre said Persen was the “natural” successfor for Tajik at the labour ministry. “She’s the one who the experience, the skills and the personality” for the post, Støre said. She’ll also be responsible for getting new Ukrainian refugees settled and into the work force.
Aasland, meanwhile, has been a Member of Parliament from Telemark since 2005 and a member of various committees in Parliament since. He has led Parliament’s energy and environmental committee since last fall. “I would say he’s ready to take over as Oil & Energy Minister,” Støre said. “His experience and his well-prepared starting point made this a very safe and good choice.”
Deputy leader post to remain vacant
NRK reported Monday that the Labour Party won’t fill its now-empty post of deputy leader until its national meeting next year. Bjørnar Skjæran, currently minister in charge of fisheries and maritime issues, will carry on as lone deputy leader until spring 2023. Asked whether Tajik may eventually make a comeback, Støre said he wasn’t ruling anything out.
“It’s all about confidence and qualifications,” he said at a press conference Monday afternoon, “and as you know, I believe that Hadia has great political talent and ability. We must use the clever people we have, and we have many.”
Now he’ll need to revert to other pressing issues of the day, and try to stay in power himself. His government has met a long series of problems since taking office and both Labour and its Center Party partner have sunk in public opinion polls, even before the Tajik drama began.