Last week, when David Cameron was on a tour of Europe, it was no coincidence that his first stop was The Hague. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, is a fellow conservative who not only supports his reform project, but also speaks in glowing terms of their personal friendship.
Unfortunately for British diplomacy, Mark Rutte may not be around for much longer. The coalition government he has led since 2012, consisting of his own VVD and the Labour Party, was trounced in the general election for the Senate in March of this year. When the results became official on 26th May, it had only 21 deputies left in the 75 member Senate – down from 30. To pass any legislation, the government will now have to strike deals on an ad hoc basis with an array of opposition parties.
The VVD-Labour team had not previously suffered from a lack of effectiveness. Against a backdrop of economic adversity, it has managed to halve the budget deficit. At the same time, it has initiated long-delayed reform to the housing market, which had been distorted by state subsidies to homeowners. The Dutch economy now looks healthier than at any time since the financial crash of 2008. So why isn’t making tough decisions being rewarded at the polls?
To answer this question, look at the country’s institutions. The Netherlands famously uses proportional representation to elect both houses of parliament, endowing each with complete veto power. This consensual arrangement is a legacy from the time when there were stark divisions along religious and class lines. Today, it serves mainly to reward political irresponsibility.
This is not only because it benefits extremists. It is true that Geert Wilders, who wants “fewer Moroccans”, has been able to build steadily on a five per cent vote share since 2006. In the context of the recent Senate elections, even more important is the way in which both VVD and Labour have been undercut by similar parties making bolder claims. VVD, for instance, has been shedding votes to the slightly-moreconservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). That party’s main attraction seems to be that it refuses to cooperate with the government in the Senate, accusing VVD of treason for forming a coalition with Labour. Never mind that CDA did exactly the same thing during its most recent spell in power, and lacks any plan to rally a right-wing majority to its cause. Meanwhile, slightly-more-liberal Democrats 66, which is part of the so-called ‘constructive opposition’, has seen the rise of its popularity come to a shuddering halt.
Trust in politics is a public good. Politicians want it to be there, but they lack the incentive to contribute to it. Indeed, the current government has done its own bit to tarnish it. Back in 2012, VVD and Labour ran a vicious campaign against each other, despite the fact that it was already evident that both would have to join the government if any majority was to be found. When the two parties duly exchanged rhetoric for realism after the election, voters saw their cynicism confirmed.
Thus, Mark Rutte’s government risks being swept away on a tide of anti-incumbency. That must be a depressing sight to David Cameron, who needs friends in Europe more than ever if he is to avoid the same fate.