Mark Rutte: can’t live with him, can’t live without him(?)

Honestly, sometimes I regret not continuing my daily updates. Where we were last time? The Tweede Kamer was about to interrogate former investigators Annemarie Jorritsma (VVD) and Kajsa Ollongren (D66) about the “position elsewhere” comment in relation to Pieter Omtzigt (CDA). This session took place less than a week ago, but so much has happened since then it feels much longer.

What it all came down to was who said “position elsewhere” in relation to Omtzigt (all other controversial comments were eventually set aside). No one could remember, so the Tweede Kamer demanded to see all notes from the investigation process. Some notes were produced, but not as many as the Kamer expected, so the demand was renewed. It took so long to gather the information that the plenary session had to be adjourned until the next day, much to the disgust of many of the parties in the chamber.

Long story short: it was Mark Rutte. From a more detailed transcript of proceedings came his line: “you have to do something with Omtzigt: make him a minister”. This was presumably the comment which it turned out a note-taker present had translated to a “position elsewhere” for Omtzigt. The problem was, Rutte had been asked in front of cameras the week before whether he’d mentioned Pieter Omtzigt at all during his discussions with the investigators. He claimed not to have done so, and now this was exposed as being incorrect.  

A lengthy and occasionally fierce debate in the Tweede Kamer ensued, which wasn’t resolved until 3am Friday morning. News reports had fun making a supercut of the number of times Rutte denied lying in relation to not having made comments about Omtzigt, insisting it was a simple case of him having forgotten. The problem with this, as illustrated by Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks), is that Rutte has a history of having a faulty memory in delicate situations, most recently before this in relation to the childcare benefits scandal.

The end result was while a motion of censure against Rutte for his behaviour during the investigation phase was passed with only the VVD voting against, the motion of no-confidence which would have removed him as Prime Minister failed, due to the decision of D66, CDA and the ChristenUnie to join the VVD in voting against it.

So here’s the situation:

1) The VVD appear firm in their support for Rutte. They have good reason for this: 1.9 million people voted directly for him just a few weeks ago, as he led the VVD to it’s fourth successive election as the largest party in the country. There’s no obvious successor, and the party just spent the entire election campaign promoting a vote for “Mark Rutte” rather than a vote for “the VVD”. Across all the news bulletins and talk shows, various VVD establishment figures (former minister Henk Kamp seems to be popping up a lot) have expressed their full support for Rutte, suggesting a carefully co-ordinated plan to make sure no one doubts the party’s resolve in this matter.

2) As mentioned above, all parties except for the VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie supported a motion of no-confidence in Rutte. It would be bizarre and quite frankly, a blow to their credibility if one of these other parties suddenly turned around and decided to work with Rutte in a new government after all. The ChristenUnie has since said that even though they voted against no-confidence, they will not enter a new coalition with Rutte at the helm.

3) This leaves the VVD, D66 and CDA – together they have 73 seats, so they could put together a minority government and seek out parties to make up the numbers for each piece of legislation. Not ideal, but not impossible either. This assumes the CDA decides to play along – they could well decide that opposition is more appealing, leaving the VVD and D66 with their combined 58 seats to find those extra 18 MPs each time.

4) While sending the VVD to the opposition benches might be tempting, it is also a recipe for new elections within the next few months – although increasingly this looks like the most likely outcome anyway. Sigrid Kaag (D66) would be the obvious choice for Prime Minister if Rutte and the VVD were pushed to the side, but she would have to deal with a rainbow coalition of at least seven parties from all parts of the political spectrum. I highly doubt this is what Kaag imagined when she spoke of her ambition to become the first woman Prime Minister.

What’s next? The caretaker government will continue as is for now. Tamara van Ark (VVD) and Wouter Koolmees (D66) have been set aside as investigators – in fact, this entire phase will be skipped, given that everything is already out in the open anyway. Instead, as I finish this post, the Tweede Kamer is poised to appoint Herman Tjeenk Willink as mediator to begin coalition negotiations. Tjeenk Willink was a PvdA Senator during the late 80s and most of the 90s. He assisted as mediator in the formation of the Rutte I and Rutte III cabinets and so knows how to handle these delicate situations. And if none of this works? Back to the polls. But we’re not there yet.