The Dutch prime minister’s prospects of forming a new government have been dealt a potentially fatal blow after MPs passed a motion censuring his behaviour and accusing him of undermining public trust and “not speaking the truth”.
Mark Rutte, whose right-leaning liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) comfortably won last month’s parliamentary election, narrowly survived a confidence vote on Friday that threatened to abruptly end his 11 years as prime minister. He has been accused of covering up efforts to rein in an outspoken MP during coalition negotiations.
But MPs demanded a new independent official be appointed to oversee preliminary talks on forming a new coalition, and it is by no means clear that Rutte, who is serving in a caretaker capacity, will retain the support needed to head a new government.
The official will “explore what possibilities there are to restore confidence” in Rutte after the incident, the social-liberal D66 party and the Christian Democrats (CDA) said in a joint motion. The two parties are the VVD’s outgoing – and most likely future – coalition partners.
After a marathon debate that ended in the early hours of Friday, Rutte said: “Parliament has given me a serious message and I will try my very best to win back confidence. I have heard the message and taken it to heart.”
The D66 leader, Sigrid Kaag, whose party significantly increased its share of the vote and finished second in the 17 March elections, said her trust in Rutte had been “seriously dented … The distance between him and me is wider. I regret that.”
She said it should “not be taken as read” that Rutte would lead the coalition formation process. “If I were him, I would not continue,” she added.
Coalition talks were halted last week when one of the officials then in charge of exploring possible options was photographed with a sensitive document suggesting party leaders had discussed a position “elsewhere” for a prominent government critic.
Although his party was in the outgoing coalition, Pieter Omtzigt, a popular CDA MP, had been instrumental in exposing a child benefits scandal that forced the resignation of Rutte’s previous cabinet in January.
Commentators disagreed about what exactly the cryptic “elsewhere” comment next to Omtzigt’s name on the document may have meant, but it clearly suggested that Rutte and Kaag were discussing the campaigning MP’s future.
Rutte denied to reporters that he had discussed Omtzigt during the exploratory talks. Then, after civil servants’ notes of the exploratory meetings were published before Thursday’s parliamentary debate, he had to acknowledge that he had.
Rutte said in the debate he “had not remembered” that part of the talks, and had answered reporters’ questions in good conscience. “The only thing I can do here is say from the bottom of my heart … that I never lied,” he told MPs, apologising to Omtzigt and pledging: “Where trust has been violated I will work hard to restore it.”
Opposition parties, all of which supported the no-confidence motion, were sceptical. “The prime minister shamelessly lied to the Netherlands for a week,” the far-right leader Geert Wilders said in parliament. “But after 10 years of government, the truth has caught up with him”.
Coalition talks are now likely to be delayed for weeks. Dutch commentators are unsure where the incident leaves the veteran prime minister, who has survived so many scandals that he is known as “Teflon Mark”.
Some analysts believe Rutte has been so badly wounded that his own party will oblige him to step down, although it is unclear who would have the stature to replace him in the VVD, which he has led since 2006.
Others believe such a move is unlikely, and that D66 and the CDA may have left him enough room to continue.
“Two weeks ago, Rutte got just under 2 million votes, by far the most of all eligible candidates,” said Guus Dietvorst, the political editor of the Dutch public broadcaster NOS. “His party also won by far the most seats in those elections. That makes a coalition without the VVD very complex. New elections are also unlikely: no one wants a political crisis in the middle of a health crisis. That may have saved Rutte’s skin.”
Dietvorst predicted that political leaders would reflect over the Easter break. “But we are already hearing that the official who will now take charge of the preliminary coalition talks must be more distant from politics – and above all, work on restoring trust. And that means with Rutte.”