The sighs were almost audible over the Dutch Sunday newspapers as junior coalition partners, Christian Union – having helped Mark Rutte to survive only last Friday by voting against a motion of no confidence – became the first to abandon ship, refusing to work with him again as premier.
The reasons for those sighs will have varied according to your view of OmzigtGate, the political soap opera that’s convulsed the Netherlands since the start of the year, when it became clear that a scandal the government hoped would go away was actually gaining momentum.
Part One of OmzigtGate ended on January 23rd when the third Rutte coalition collapsed just weeks before a general election. Part Two ended on Friday with Mr Rutte politically wounded, perhaps mortally.
What parts one and two have in common – and who knows what role he’ll play in Part Three after the Easter recess – is Christian Democrat MP, Pieter Omtzigt, whose persistence dragged the child benefits scandal that sank the Rutte government into the light of day.
What Omtzigt revealed was that, contrary to assurances from civil servants, ministers, and most of all, the tax authorities, more than 20,000 families had been pushed to, and in many cases beyond, the brink of bankruptcy by having to repay years of benefits payments that were rightly theirs.
If that sounds like a relatively minor error, the conveniently unseen reality was that homes had to be sold, marriages broke up, people became depressed, some attempted suicide. The courts believed the tax office. Most tellingly of all, families with ethnic-sounding names were treated worst.
Omtzigt has a record of being independent-minded and a thorn in the side of institutions behaving badly. The problem in this case was that by bringing down the Rutte government he also brought down his own party, the third largest in the coalition.
Mr Omtzigt ran for the Christian Democrats’ leadership earlier this year and lost out to Wopke Hoechstra, who as finance minister was infamously scathing about Mediterranean countries not having adequate “fiscal buffers” to protect them against the economic impact of coronavirus.
After a lacklustre performance, Mr Hoechstra duly led the Christian Democrats into last month’s election and lost four seats, slipping from third to fourth.
Ironically, a reliable poll showed that had Mr Omtzigt abandoned the party completely and run his own list in that same election, he’d have won 23 seats, a stellar achievement that would have placed him in the top three parties, with a pivotal role forming a new coalition. Instead, Mr Omtzigt’s role was purely accidental.
As one of two facilitators charged with finding a route to a new coalition was stepping into a taxi just over a week ago, her notes were photographed from a distance. On the snapped page were the words “Omtzigt” and “another function”.
Mark Rutte denied early on that the note referred to a meeting with him – but last Thursday admitted that it did. He’d forgotten, he said. Others believe he lied, and wanted Omtzigt kept well away from his new government.
The Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister, he was censured by parliament on Friday morning for “damaging public trust in government.” He narrowly survived a vote of no confidence.
So, you’ll have sighed over your Sunday paper if you felt the Christian Union decision was the beginning of the end for Mr Rutte, but that the punishment was worse than the alleged crime. His job, after all, was to negotiate the cabinet he believed would work best together.
You’ll have sighed if you felt this was a storm in a teacup and that Pieter Omtzigt, though an exemplary parliamentarian, is well down the list of national priorities when it comes to forming a new coalition – especially with the country struggling to vaccinate against a pandemic.
You’ll have sighed – and had plenty of company – if you’re totally indifferent to the fate of Mark Rutte personally but have absolutely no idea who’s capable of replacing him.
Hedging against that possibility, the Liberals, though supporting Rutte on the face of it, are apparently also discussing former health minister, Edith Schippers, as their first female leader to replace him. In reality, the job of prime minister is in play.
It’s said political careers at the top invariably end badly. Perhaps Pieter Omtzigt has the only fool-proof formula in the end: represent your constituents.