Dutch ‘manager’ Mark Rutte polling well despite mixed results

Hague Letter: After a reasonable start, the pandemic response has been patchy at best

It’s perhaps the single most telling insight into Mark Rutte’s personality that he regards himself as a manager rather than a political visionary. “If you want vision,” he once responded to a question about the economy, “you should talk to an optician.”

Whether he believes that himself, the 53-year-old Liberal Party leader knows well that to sell himself to Dutch voters on the basis of what George H W Bush once described as "the vision thing" would be to place himself in the same "loony" category as snake-charmers or Brexiteers.

What the Dutch want is a prime minister who can run a four-party coalition while losing his temper only occasionally and tactically, who will guard the country's prosperity irrespective of pressure from Brussels or on the world stage, and who is good in a crisis.

And the coronavirus pandemic has been the ultimate crisis, with an estimated 13,000 people dead in Dutch hospitals and nursing homes since March.

However, after a relatively coherent start, the Rutte government’s response has been patchy at best.

Most damaging was its failure to lead on whether masks should be worn. That caused public confusion as neighbouring countries followed World Health Organisation advice and made them obligatory. Rutte U-turned in October but masks still didn't become mandatory until December 1st, unconscionably late.

In the meantime the government was distracted by the EU row between the “Frugal Four” and “Club Med” countries over emergency funding for post-Covid-19 restructuring. As a result social distancing was widely abandoned during the summer, and by September it was clear that tougher measures would be unavoidable.

Sure enough, in October came the “partial lockdown” that didn’t work, leading to a second “hard lockdown” in mid-December, though the reality is that right through Christmas police spent their time breaking up dance parties and other illegal gatherings around the country.

General election

So where does this leave Rutte and the political classes with a general election scheduled for March 17th?

Certainly, if it’s all about the economy then there’s no shortage of pandemic-related trouble both on and over the horizon.

Dutch GDP is expected to have fallen 4.2 per cent during 2020, while unemployment will rise this year probably to somewhere between the government’s forecast of 6.1 per cent and the Central Bank’s 6.9 per cent.

It may not fall back to 4.5 per cent until 2025 – whereas it started out at a record low of 2.9 per cent last February, another powerful indicator of the havoc wreaked by the virus.

On the positive side for the government, although both Rutte and health minister Hugo de Jonge got a roasting in parliament before Christmas because of delays in rolling out vaccine jabs – the Netherlands became the last EU country to start doing so on Wednesday – it's sure to be largely done by mid-March, leaving voters newly relieved.

Polling is looking good for Rutte’s Liberals in particular. The last poll-of-polls of 2020 showed that, if the election were held tomorrow, they would increase their dominance from the current 32 seats to 39-45 in the 150-seat parliament, with 28.4 per cent of the vote.

So the expectation is that Rutte will emerge at the head of his fourth consecutive coalition. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party look set to return in second place again, followed by a scramble of also-rans – several, such as Labour and the Forum for Democracy, beset by internal rows.

Third place

As in 2017, the Christian Democrats look likely to take third place with 16-20 seats, despite the resignation of party leader De Jonge last month to concentrate on his health minister role.

De Jonge was replaced as leader by finance minister Wopke Hoekstra (45) – best known outside the Netherlands for implying last April that EU countries whose "fiscal buffers" were inadequate to absorb the cost of Covid-19 shouldn't be supported by more financially astute members.

With the body count rising, Portuguese premier Antonio Costa described Hoekstra's comments as "repugnant" and contrary to the spirit of the European Union, and Hoekstra rather grudgingly apologised, admitting his remarks had perhaps "lacked empathy".

Those hardline views, however, did him a world of good at home, winning the Christians Democrats a whole new following in the polls – where they’re four seats ahead on last October.

The outspoken former Shell executive and McKinsey consultant will be the one to watch over the next three months – poised to capitalise without compunction on any unforeseen "costs" of coronavirus that Rutte's undoubted managerial skills may have failed to anticipate.

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