It can take months to form a coalition government in the Netherlands, so it was surprising to see Mark Rutte and his new "best friend", Sigrid Kaag, get down to some serious post-election arm wrestling last Friday – just 24 hours after being thrown together by the electorate.
With all the ease of a leader who has served three terms as premier, Rutte had already stepped into his familiar role as ringmaster, urging the parties to expedite talks so that a new government could focus on the coronavirus pandemic and on rebuilding the economy.
Yet as the leaders of the seven largest parties met with commendable speed on Thursday afternoon with two “sherpas” whose job will be to inch them towards a workable coalition deal, the dynamic was already somehow different.
Why? Because although Rutte's Liberal Party had easily topped the poll as predicted, it was their coalition partners, D66, who had staged a last-minute sprint, forcing Geert Wilders's far-right Freedom Party into third place – thereby winning what one editorial called "the moral victory" of the election.
That term “moral victory” is an interesting one because what it suggests is that D66 and Kaag, their leader for just over six months, deserve some form of recognition disproportionate to the size of their win, at 24 seats in the 150-seat parliament already a creditable gain of five on 2017.
Might it be, for instance, that that moral victory entitles D66 to be treated as equals with the Liberals in the coalition talks, despite Rutte’s own shiny new mandate of 35 seats?
That’s quite a radical idea to those who still see politics as a zero-sum game.
But then radical ideas used to be the stock in trade of D66, a party founded by a group of young intellectuals in the revolutionary 1960s with the aim of “democratising” Dutch politics and modernising policymaking – a progressive agenda it has since pursued in a long list of coalitions.
That’s also why it was interesting to see Kaag, an Oxford-educated former diplomat, with, as another observer put it, “a wardrobe full of iron fists and velvet gloves”, put some of the former on show, however briefly, as she stamped her personal authority on her win.
There were many live domestic issues on which she could have challenged Rutte in the first hours of their new working relationship, but she chose the one on which public opinion has been most positive towards the caretaker prime minister: his management of the pandemic.
Straight in she went, warning that the overnight curfew – which sparked three nights of nationwide rioting when it was imposed in January and which cost Rutte more than a little political capital to stand over – should be “removed, very quickly”.
With the arrival of daylight saving time, she warned, it would become increasingly difficult to enforce. So now was the time for the government to “broaden its approach” to the pandemic in pursuit of a better balance between economic wellbeing and public health.
If the Liberals and D66 do form a fourth Rutte coalition, and if Kaag is positioning D66 to take credit for any easing of restrictions she believes will inevitably come with increased vaccination, then nobody, one imagines, will be more impressed at her tactical skills than Rutte.
Events, however, have a habit of confounding even the most skilful tacticians. Despite what the majority of the population undoubtedly wants, the coronavirus figures are going the wrong way.
In the 24 hours to Friday there were 7,425 new cases, the highest since January 8th. With AstraZeneca vaccinations delayed and the B117 coronavirus variant fuelling a third wave, the balance is delicate – and dicing with expectations has got to be a bad idea in principle.
Perhaps the hours after a famous moral victory are a time for strategy rather than tactics.
In the case of a resurgent D66, having campaigned on a strongly pro-Europe agenda and then unceremoniously displaced the Netherlands’ most notorious far-right Europhobe, the significance was abundantly clear.
But whereas Rutte has always “managed” Wilders by burnishing his own right-wing credentials in response, Kaag instinctively did the opposite. She dismissed him completely.
Climbing down from a table after a brief jig as the results flashed on screen, she turned to the cameras, declaring simply and rather breathlessly, in almost Bideneqsue fashion: “This result is proof that Dutch people are not extremists. We are moderates.”
In that moment, whatever the coalition talks bring, Sigrid Kaag stole a march on Mark Rutte.