Dutch PM Mark Rutte to quit politics in wake of government’s collapse

Parliament listens in stunned silence as long-serving leader announces surprise decision to retire

The Netherlands was in shock on Monday after long-serving centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte announced his retirement from politics – just 48 hours after his fourth consecutive coalition government collapsed in an acrimonious row over immigration.

What made Mr Rutte’s brief announcement to parliament doubly surprising was that late on Friday evening, just hours after it became clear that the demise of the government was irretrievable, he said he would be willing to lead a fifth cabinet, if one could be put together.

A weekend, however, can be a long time in politics. As a result, MPs arriving in parliament on Monday for what was expected to be a long and heated series of recriminations, had no inkling of what was about to unfold until Mr Rutte took the podium and announced his departure.

“Yesterday morning I made the decision that I will not be available again as leader of the Liberal [VVD] party”, he told the house, to a stunned silence. “Once the new cabinet is formed after the election, I will leave politics.”


Mr Rutte (56), the longest serving EU premier apart from Hungary’s Viktor Orban, told reporters as he left the chamber: “I do this with mixed feelings. But I have made the decision – and it feels right.”

In the background, there were multiple pressures on Mr Rutte, not least from senior figures in his own party who initially put pressure on him to adopt a tough line with his coalition partners on immigration, but who by Sunday were excoriating him for going too far and sparking an unnecessary election.

In addition, spurred by Mr Rutte’s reputation for getting out of a tight spot, opposition leaders – particularly Labour, GreenLeft and the Freedom Party – came together over the weekend to threaten a vote of no confidence if he attempted to stay on.

“He must leave immediately,”Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders tweeted. “Let this be the end of the Rutte era,” declared Labour leader Esther Ouwehand. Socialist leader Lilian Martijnssen said she wanted “a Netherlands without Rutte”.

On the margins, the Christian Democrats, long-time allies of the Liberals, had their own difficulties when their leader, former finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra (47), said he too would step down for reasons unspecified.

Apart from internal criticism and the prospect of an opposition confidence motion, another strategic factor for Mr Rutte is likely to have been the decision by the “farmer-civilian protest party”, BoerBurgerBeweging, known as BBB, to refuse to join any new coalition he leads.

Polling suggests the BBB will be the second-largest party after the November general election, trading its current single seat for at least 23 in the 150-seat parliament, in comparison to a forecast of 28 for the Liberals, meaning a straight battle to form a coalition.

The BBB shot to prominence in the regional elections last March as a single-issue party opposed to the government’s plans to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 by dramatically reducing livestock numbers and shutting down thousands of farms.

However, party leader Caroline van der Plas added to a weekend of surprises on Saturday when she said she didn’t necessarily see herself as prime minister even if the possibility arose – raising the issue of whether the BBB can broaden its policy appeal and present itself as a party of government.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court