Anyone for Hennis: why the defence minister took one for the team in Mali

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Jeanine Hennis with Mark Rutte and Tom Middendorp (centre) on board the frigate HLNMS De Ruyter off the coast of Somalia in 2013. Photo: EU Naval Forces via Flickr

Sometimes the last five minutes of a football match can provide enough drama to make the spectators forget all about the turgid spectacle they had to endure beforehand. The row that brought down Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert was an unexpected late twist just as Mark Rutte’s second administration looked to be trundling towards the buffers. It was a particularly welcome slab of red meat for The Hague’s lobby correspondents, who have had to get by on scraps and thin gruel for nearly seven months now. At the weekend Hennis was adamant that she would ‘step up, not step down’ as defence minister following the safety board’s scathing report on two preventable deaths in the field in Mali, but by Tuesday evening, when Parliament debated the report, her resignation was a fait accompli.

In stepping down she spared the incoming coalition the headache of a no-confidence vote before it had even drawn breath. Her tenacious performance before Parliament went some way to restoring her reputation after a clumsy series of weekend interviews – something Rutte made a point of emphasising in his response. Hennis has almost certainly surrendered her chance of a seat in Rutte’s new cabinet, but even this could work in her favour. Chief of staff Tom Middendorp’s resignation – a symbolic gesture, since he was due to be replaced next Thursday anyway – was a move calculated to keep up the pressure on the political masters in The Hague to invest more in the armed forces. That now becomes a problem for Hennis’s successor.

Poisoned chalice

It took time for Hennis to win over the political and military hierarchy, a task that was made extra challenging not only by the fact that she was the first woman to take charge of the defence department, but by Rutte’s decision to dispense with the junior ministerial position, putting her on a solo mission. At first Hennis, who had no previous experience of government, seemed to struggle with the high workload and military protocol, relying on a placemat to remind her of the difference between a major’s and a general’s stripes. She was handed a poisoned chalice by the previous government in the form of a €1 billion cuts programme that compelled her to lay off thousands of military personnel. In the subsequent years she succeeded in reversing many of the cutbacks and supervising the first increases in defence spending in decades, undoubtedly aided by growing public anxiety about the threat of terrorism. By the end Hennis had earned the trust and respect of the military high command, as Middendorp acknowledged in his resignation statement, describing her as a ‘fighter’ and ‘a minister who refused to look the other way’.

Her departure was both sudden and unsurprising. The Dutch Safety Board’s (OVV) report into the fatal accident in Mali in July last year put the blame squarely on the military and political leadership. Two soldiers died and another was seriously injured when a grenade exploded that, it later emerged, was substandard and had not been properly tested. It was the outcome of years of cost-cutting and a ‘can do’ culture that prioritised the success of military missions over soldiers’ safety. By taking ministerial responsibility, Hennis deflected the anger of the victims’ relatives and awkward questions from the senior commanders who put their sons’ lives at risk. She also defused a political crisis that had the potential to lame the new government at birth. Having been tipped as a future VVD leader – and it’s worth remembering that no woman has led any of the three major parties of government since the war – Hennis will start Rutte’s third term on the Parliamentary benches. But she earned plenty of credit in the process, and given the VVD’s recent tendency to shed ministers like confetti (Hennis is the seventh to quit the current administration) her return to cabinet may not be long delayed.

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