Rutte rewarded for acquitting himself well on Covid-19, with his popularity soaring

Hague Letter: all politicians would be mistaken to believe they are in the driving seat when it comes to coronavirus

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic a much-shared cartoon showed Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte as an elderly man, standing unassailably at the head of his eighth successive coalition government, reassuring the public that he hoped soon to be able to announce the end of the country's "intelligent lockdown".

Every democracy will have what can all too appropriately be called its own postmortem about how the disease was tackled and the degree to which its systems were capable of handling a rapidly escalating threat, but in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, it's too soon yet to have that conversation.

Measured by public approval, however, there is no doubt that Rutte (53) – who is at the head of his third coalition in a row – has acquitted himself well, with his personal popularity at an all-time high and one poll naming him best prime minister of the post-war era.

His Liberal Party has also been reaping the notional benefits in the polls. "Notional" because while it is true that the instinct of a population under threat is to cling to authority, it is equally true that once there is any whiff of a return to normality, the public spine stiffens and normal service resumes.

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That is why it was instructive at the weekend to see that a new survey by the public health institute show that while 65 per cent of people were “positive” or “very positive” about the government’s response to the crisis in April, today that figure has slumped to 39 per cent as they tire of “inconsistent” restrictions.

It is no news that politics is an unforgiving game, so what this tells politicians and their “handlers” is that the pass the public awarded the government for good behaviour is rapidly coming to an end.

With a general election scheduled for March 17th next year, it’s a moment all the parties have been waiting for, and the political landscape has been shifting quietly in the background.

Favourite

While Rutte must certainly be the odds-on favourite to form the next government, the crisis has also thrown up another interesting contender: deputy prime minister and health minister Hugo de Jonge (42), of the Christian Democrats (CDA), the second largest in the four-party coalition.

De Jonge stepped up in March to replace Bruno Bruins as minister overseeing the government's response to the pandemic after Bruins fainted at a press briefing, and he is a contender for the CDA leadership against three solid rivals, including campaigning MP Pieter Omtzigt.

Assuming De Jonge – also known for his exotic choice of colourful shoes – takes the leadership, and assuming the fair wind he is received thus far as Covid-19 minister continues to boost his profile, he too could be in a strong position.

Another coalition partner, centre-left D66, also has a leadership vacancy expected to be filled unopposed by trade minister Sigrid Kaag (59), a multilingual Oxford-educated former diplomat.

The unpredictable nature of Covid-19 makes it virtually impossible, of course, to predict what will happen politically between now and March.

Even so, expect Rutte to reprise his tough stance on behalf of the "frugal four" – the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden – when EU leaders make another attempt later this month to agree a Covid-19 recovery package.

The four have been absolute in their view that the package "should consist of loans only, without any mutualisation of debt", and as a result Rutte and his finance minister Wokpe Hoekstra have been at loggerheads with the "club Med" countries of southern Europe.

Unsavoury

On this issue Rutte also knows he is at one with the majority of the Dutch public – 61 per cent of whom backed his hard line in a recent poll by I & O Research.

"Considering the Covid-19 devastation in countries such as Italy, our position may look a touch unsavoury from the outside," conceded one Dutch commentator. "But we've hammered home all along that the Netherlands pays more per capita into the EU budget than anyone else, so it's a line we can't afford to yield. The domestic response is all that matters to Rutte and Hoekstra. The view abroad is totally irrelevant to them."

Yet six months on politicians – irrespective of country – would be mistaken to believe they are now in the driving seat when it comes to Covid-19. There is an emerging view among experts in the Netherlands that were the country forced to lock down a second time a general election just months away might well become inadvisable at best.

Even when it comes to the exercise of democracy, this pandemic remains firmly at the wheel.