Part 2: Rutte, from Cameron buddy to May’s stern advocate

The liberal Dutch parties VVD and D66 have two distinct identities and historical predecessors. The VVD is more a car-loving, classical-liberal party with, since 1990’s leader Bolkestein, anti-federalist EU instincts, and has less of an environmental record than D66, who premièred gay marriage and are electoral reformers, very similar to the Lib Dems.

Contacts between the Lib Dems and D66 (both social-liberal) are warmer and broader than the VVD-Lib Dems. In Chris Bowers’ biography of Clegg, VVD figures once (p. 104), whereas D66 & Lousewies Vander Laan are on pages  102-3, 104 and 266-7 as Clegg supporters, also in the Coalition.

In the Dutch Balkenende II government (2003-’06), VVD was constantly squabbling about who was leader, and VVD minister Verdonk tried to rob VVD MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali of her Dutch passport, eliciting a no confidence motion from coalition partner D66.

To detoxify the VVD brand, Rutte in his first year as leader (2006-7) tried to set the VVD on a similar green course as Cameron tried with the Tories; both leaders let environmentalism slip because of insufficient backup from party grassroots and cadres. Rutte is totally absent from the Clegg biography (written in 2010).

The Rutte-Cameron relationship, begun while in opposition, blossomed when in 2010 both became prime minister (Rutte accepting support from Wilders, who was attacked by D66’s leader Pechtold).

Rutte, remembering the 2005 Dutch referendum on the “European Constitution” fiasco, warned Cameron against promising anything like a Brexit referendum.

According to David Laws’ book on the Coaliton (p. 406-09), the success D66 had fighting Wilders in debates from 2006 onwards, inspired Rutte’s advice to Clegg to challenge Farage; as we all know, their first 2014 debate was a draw, their second a PR disaster for Clegg and the pro-European cause.

Meanwhile, after the First Rutte Government was broken by Wilders walking out in 2012, Rutte remained strong in the elections and entered a coalition with PvdA (Labour). After Rutte II lost its majority in the Dutch Senate, from 2015 D66 and the orthodox protestant parties (ChristenUnie and SGP) offered confidence and supply in exchange for huge investment in education (D66) and NATO (all three partners). Thus Rutte II could reign the full term, a rarity. After the 2017 elections, Rutte was able to form a coalition with CDA (Christian Democrats), D66 and ChristenUnie. Thus, Rutte was Dutch prime minister from 2010 to the present, becoming a veteran (and mediator, reconciler) in the European Council.

Picking up the Dutch-British relationship when Cameron stood down, May was much helped by Rutte’s experience and stature in European politics; they’re in regular contact by telephone or in bilateral meetings.

This is what Rutte said on March 14th, after her second Brexit Deal disaster in the Commons. I translate verbatim from the coverage by NOS (our BBC): “What’s the sense of keep on whining to each other for more months, after running around that circle for the past two years?”. In his view, the British will have to start dropping some red lines, especially around Northern Ireland and the Customs Union, if we’re going to have any agreement. Rutte announces that he’ll do nothing; it is entirely up to May.

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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