Talks on a new Dutch coalition government remain on hold after caretaker premier Mark Rutte narrowly survived a vote of no confidence on Friday morning, having been accused of lying to parliament about his role in the negotiations.
Despite his survival, the row places a major question mark not alone over Mr Rutte’s capacity to form his fourth consecutive coalition in a decade, but over his capacity to remain as acting prime minister and even as leader of the country’s dominant Liberal Party, known as the VVD.
Although he survived the confidence vote at the end of undoubtedly the worst day of his political career, the veteran politician – known colloquially as “Teflon Mark” – did have to accept a deeply embarrassing vote of censure for “damaging public trust in government”.
While always denying he had lied, a chastened Mr Rutte responded before leaving the chamber shortly after 4am: “Parliament has given me a clear message. I have heard that message, taken it to heart, and will try my very best to win back confidence.”
He raised some eyebrows, however, by saying that at no time since the row first led to the suspension of the coalition talks on March 25th had he considered resigning – a point underlined when he returned to his office in parliament hours later on Friday morning.
Although the talk on Friday evening was of a single new facilitator, unconnected to parliament, to attempt to restart the talks, all the parties agreed that such had been the breach of trust that there could be no return to “politics as usual” after the Easter recess.
Far-right leader Geert Wilders lost no time twisting the knife, commenting to the besieged prime minister: “You are totally isolated.”
Even D66 leader and coalition partner Sigrid Kaag, the other big winner in last month's election, who had been expected to work again with Mr Rutte, said: "If I were him, I would not continue."
This complex political row is the second to engulf the country since the start of the year, and the two are related.
As it struggled with coronavirus in January, Mr Rutte's third coalition was brought down by a scandal over child benefits payments – which was uncovered over several years largely through the tireless work of independent-minded Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt.
The effect of this was that the four-party coalition that included the Liberals, D66, the Christian Democrats and Christian Union – parties that might well have reunited to form a fourth government in the current talks – was brought down by one of its own MPs.
As a result, when one of the two “sherpas”, whose job is to bring potential coalition partners together, had her notes photographed in her hand outside parliament, and those notes referred to “Omtzigt” and finding him “another function”, the hunt was on for who had made that comment.
Although Mr Rutte at first denied it, he was later forced to recant, claiming a failure of recollection.
Mr Omtzigt described Mr Rutte’s interference as “an affront to the Dutch voter”.