Column | Tactical rumble and beyond: a poisonous game

Distrust can be a powerful weapon, Mark Rutte knows something about it. After difficult years of opposition, he served in the fall of 2009 a vote of no confidence against the Balkenende IV cabinet. His polls went up in the air, nine months later the VVD was the largest for the first time: Rutte became prime minister.

Last week, the same Rutte attacked the opposition’s mistrust. But just as he himself complained in 2009 about the weak response to the credit crisis, after the Allowances affair and the Omtzigt crisis (‘function elsewhere’), the House criticized his faltering memory and the information provided by his cabinet. The self-deleted text messages illustrated how much he underestimated the opposition’s distaste for this.

It fits into a greater whole. Even when Rutte faltered after 1 April last year, he did not become more humble. He held on to his prime ministerial candidacy and demanded a coalition with the CU. For example, he blocked a cabinet with a majority in the senate (VVD, D66, CDA, PvdA, GroenLinks), for which he had to make major concessions to D66 in terms of content. A tactical mess that explains Rutte IV’s shaky base in the senate: the conservative opposition thinks the policy is too progressive, the left-wing opposition feels passed over.

Yet it is also true that the distrust of the opposition regularly spills over into destruction. As a basis for parliamentary scrutiny, mistrust is not a bad attitude. But it does require self-relativity: inspectors must also be able to distrust themselves. And a year ago you saw that opposition politicians started imitating people like Pieter Omtzigt, Renske Leijten and – above all – Geert Wilders. Then Farid Azarkan (Denk), a handy politician, spoke of ‘criminal games’ in the Council of Ministers or ‘dictatorial tendencies’ in government members, and there was no one left in The Hague who said: aren’t you exaggerating, Farid?

In short, the danger of rising distrust is real. Precisely the Allowances Affair showed the result: a government that distrusts people creates people who distrust the government. So MPs who constantly mistrust the cabinet can know what they are calling for: that they themselves will eventually be mistrusted.

For example, the prime minister and the opposition have engaged in a toxic game in which the transition from destruction to self-destruction is dangerously small.

And it is surprising that a prime minister who sits for so long, and who likes to go down in history as a statesman, does not put on the brakes. His job is to maintain good relations with the opposition. If they suffer from mistrust for too long, that is primarily his problem: reason for reflection on their own role, not for lashing out at others.