Back to square one: how D66 squandered its electoral advantage

It’s remarkable to think that just three weeks ago a cartoonist saw fit to depict Sigrid Kaag as a witch in heels flying a broomstick into the Twin Towers, clad in the grinning face of Mark Rutte. Already that sketch seems like a throwback to a different era – not just because of its crude sexist imagery, but because it was so quickly overtaken by events. If we really needed an inappropriate metaphor from the world of terrorism, a better choice would have been a suicide attack.

In the six months since the election Kaag has perfected the trick of pulling the rug from under her own feet. At the start of April she submitted, jointly with CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra, a motion of disapproval in Mark Rutte that was supported by every party in parliament apart from Rutte’s VVD. The prime minister had denied trying to put Pieter Omtzigt, the tenacious CDA MP who helped expose the childcare benefits scandal that brought down Rutte’s last cabinet, in the political friendzone by giving him a ministerial role. Accidentally leaked briefing notes indicated that Rutte’s memory, not for the first time, was at fault.

The prime minister looked to be up a creek without recourse to a paddle. ‘This is where our ways part,’ said Kaag in parliament. In the corridors she tightened the thumbscrews, telling journalists that had she been in the same position, she would have done the decent thing and resigned. But Rutte stood his ground, promised to learn his lesson, and the mood of crisis abated. Weeks later Kaag qualified her statement: she hadn’t been talking about an actual parting of the ways, but that she and Rutte approached things from different perspectives. You say patat, I say four-course Thai takeaway, but let’s not call the whole thing off.

A similar thing happened in the autumn, when Kaag kicked off the political season with a two-footed challenge on Rutte’s managerial style. People who went round boasting of what a fine, or ‘gaaf’ country the Netherlands were part of the problem, she said. ‘Leadership, to me, is the opposite of hustling and rustling with no vision.’ Her use of ‘gaaf’, Rutte’s epithet of choice, left no room for doubt about the identity of her target, as did her reference to ‘no vision’. But the next day Kaag insisted she was referring in to a ‘broad managerial culture’, not Rutte specifically, and criticised her critics for being obsessed with ‘what people believe they’ve read.’ Once again, Kaag sharpened the knife, only to flinch when the time came to deliver the coup de grâce. And while Rutte often blames his conflicts with the truth on his own faltering memory, Kaag suggested, more problematically, that everybody else had misremembered what she said.

From the outset Kaag set her heart on creating ‘the most progressive cabinet possible’. She explicitly rejected reforming the fallen coalition with VVD, CDA and the ChristenUnie. D66 would no longer be shackled by the CU’s scruples on medical-ethical issues. Her own preference was for a five-party coalition with the conjoined centre-left twins, Labour (PvdA) and GroenLinks. Over the summer she and Rutte spent weeks working on a preliminary draft of a coalition agreement that could be set before potential partners. For Kaag it was the high point of the negotiations, with proposals to modernise the education system, invest in renewable energy and take a ‘humane’ approach to migration. It embodied the liberal dream of a more enlightened, more sustainable and more profitable society, and like most dreams it disintegrated at first light. PvdA and GroenLinks embraced it enthusiastically. But Hoekstra said he could never persuade the CDA membership to work with ‘three left-wing parties’, at which point Rutte buried the plan in a shallow grave, never to be spoken of again.

Events conspired to bring Kaag down, but often they were events of her own making. In August she had to stand down as caretaker foreign minister when parliament passed a motion of disapproval in the ministry’s handling of the evacuation of Kabul. The line she drew in April, when Rutte refused to quit, became a trip wire.

Kaag’s strategy seems to have been based on a miscalculation. By excluding the ChristenUnie, she believed she could force the hand of the alliance on her right, VVD and CDA, and form a cabinet with PvdA and GroenLinks. Failing that, the alliance on her left would split, with one falling away and the other joining a four-party cabinet. When neither pairing buckled, the only option left was for D66 to repair its damaged partnership with the ChristenUnie, or face new elections.

What is the price of Kaag’s failure? The notion of the ‘most progressive cabinet possible’ is dead in the water, for starters. The centre-right parties of VVD and CDA will dominate the new government, though there will be a reshuffle to reflect D66’s bigger cohort of MPs. Having resigned over Afghanistan, Kaag may have to let the VVD fill the post of foreign minister, killing her hopes of making the Netherlands a more progressive force in international diplomacy. The CU will probably be able to muster the votes to block D66’s flagship medical-ethical policy of voluntary termination of life (‘voltooid leven’), especially after CDA members called on their leadership to reject any such law at an emergency conference in September. And the new administrative culture that was proclaimed when the last cabinet resigned over the childcare benefits scandal is already a fading prospect, now that six months of backbiting and backroom deals have brought us back where we started.


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