‘Teflon Mark’ set to lead new Dutch government as crises stack up

Housing, education and climate change will be in Rutte’s in-tray – along with Covid-19

The new Dutch coalition government, which finally came together on Monday evening, has no shortage of policy issues, any one of which could be described as on the verge of crisis.

That is good news for the four parties involved. Not only will the new cabinet be able to tackle the real concerns of the electorate immediately it takes office in January, but each of the four will have an opportunity to show why it deserved to return to government – and what has changed.

It's almost a year since the third consecutive coalition of premier Mark Rutte collapsed on January 15th in a blizzard of recrimination over a scandal in which tens of thousands of families were wrongly accused of illegally claiming child benefit payments and forced to repay money they didn't have.

In the months that followed, it was not alone difficult to imagine the same four parties – Rutte's Liberals (VVD), the Christian Democrats, centrist D66 and socially conservative Christian Union – returning to power unchanged, but even more difficult to imagine "Teflon Mark" again at their head.

Yet that is his skill: he’s a canny manager in a crisis with, usually, an unerring instinct for when to stop digging.

Coalition deal

That’s why, as news of the coalition deal broke on Monday evening, his response was low-key. “It’s a good agreement,” he said. “But in the end it will be all about execution.”

The 50-page agreement went to each of the parties on Tuesday, and goes to MPs on Wednesday prior to a two-day debate on Thursday and Friday, the start of the Christmas recess. The new cabinet of 20 ministers, half of them women, will be sworn in by King Willem-Alexander in the new year.

In many ways, Rutte is correct. It is a good deal, though there were real missed opportunities for change along the way.

Having been returned as the second-largest party, D66 leader Sigrid Kaag failed to optimise the benefits of that "moral victory", not least by claiming the high moral ground when Rutte was censured for lying to parliament – so that she herself was forced to resign as foreign minister for failing to evacuate vulnerable staff from Kabul when the Taliban overran Afghanistan.

If there was a moment when Kaag was regarded as a woman with the steel to elbow Rutte out of the top job, it didn’t last.

Similarly, there was a moment when Christian Union might have been replaced in the new coalition by a ground-breaking merger between the Labour Party and GreenLeft, which could have led to far-reaching change in areas such as the liberalisation of euthanasia and the abolition of the five-day “reflection period” for women seeking abortion.

Housing shortage

In the end, perhaps too wise to the fate of junior coalition partners, neither left-wing party had the stomach for the risk.

As it is, the single biggest crisis facing the Netherlands this Christmas is a shortage of affordable accommodation. The country needs almost a million new homes by 2030, a situation that has worsened consistently during the past three governments. Rutte now sees it as a "fix" worth being remembered for.

Another popular fix will be reform of the education system, with free or subsidised nursery care to facilitate longer school days. Alongside will come tax changes encouraging employers to hire more.

Climate change is another big policy beast, and the new coalition plans a multi-billion-euro package aimed at cutting nitrogen dioxide emissions. D66 maintains the number of farm animals will need to be halved and the row over how that will be done looks set to add farmers’ protests to the housing protests and anti-vaxxer protests already common at weekends.

Those three issues alone – perhaps combined with road pricing and more research into nuclear power – could modernise and future-proof Dutch society. It all depends on the elephant at the cabinet table: coronavirus.

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