Mark Rutte: longest-serving Dutch PM set to leave politics

‘Teflon Mark’ steps down on his own terms, but could the leadership of the EU or Nato await?

Mark Rutte at the House of Representatives in The Hague, 10 July 2023
Mark Rutte has been in power for 13 years
(Image credit: Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Mark Rutte, the longest-serving Dutch prime minister in history, is to stand down after 13 years in power.

Nicknamed “Teflon Mark” for his ability to withstand a series of political crises, Rutte unexpectedly announced he would leave politics after the autumn general election sparked by the collapse of his coalition government over a minor immigration row.

In the 27-nation EU, only Hungary’s Viktor Orban has been in charge for longer, “although their leadership styles could not be more different”, said The Independent. While the increasingly authoritarian Orban has cracked down on dissent, Rutte has, “with uncanny political savvy, navigated a Western democratic system at its most eclectic”.

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Who is Mark Rutte?

Born in 1967 in The Hague, and the youngest of seven children, Rutte originally wanted to become a concert pianist but turned to politics while studying history at Leiden University.

Some of his siblings were decades older than him and it was the death of his older brother from Aids when Rutte was a young man that “altered his course”, said Politico in a profile in 2018.

“His death has drastically changed my view of life,” Rutte recalled in 2006, according to The Times. “I realised that I will only live once. There is no dress rehearsal, there is only one performance…That is where my enormous drive comes from.”

After graduating he worked for Unilever before becoming a member of Parliament in 2002. After holding a number of government briefs he was elected leader of the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in 2006.

In the 17 years since, he has fought four general elections, heading a series of coalition governments dating back to 2010. Forced to briefly resign in January 2021 over a childcare subsidies scandal, he returned to power just two months later after his VVD party finished first in national elections.

A ‘manager not a visionary’

Described as “the great survivor of Dutch politics”, his longevity can be attributed to a combination of “backroom skills with everyman appeal” said The Guardian.

As part of his “Mr Normal” image, he still lives in the house in The Hague he bought as a student and usually cycles to work, or occasionally drives there in an old Saab. In short, said The Guardian, he “projects the kind of down-to-earth, no-nonsense, cautious image the Dutch adore”.

His sole weakness, said The Economist, “is voters’ long-standing suspicion that his sunny exterior conceals the heart of a scheming tactician”.

This has perhaps been most evident in how he dealt with the sensitive issue of immigration. Despite presenting himself as what UnHerd called “Europe’s last centrist dad” he has not been afraid to pander to the far-right, promoting so-called “Dutch values” and integration, and even forming his first coalition with the anti-Islam Geert Wilders.

Described by colleagues and friends as “a manager, rather than a visionary leader,” he succeeded in getting rival parties to talk and find compromises and “was the incarnation of Dutch consensus culture: pragmatic, flexible – and visionless”, said Politico.

What will he do now?

Many have been surprised that this great political survivor has been brought down by a minor dispute regarding asylum rules, “but Rutte’s decision was not so much a response to issues as an effort to end his time in office on his own terms”, said The Economist.

He will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a general election is held in October or November. After that he has made it clear he intends to leave politics, although what this means in practice is unclear.

He is currently teaching social studies once a week at a local school in The Hague, something he said he might “do that for a few days”.

Yet “such was Rutte’s skill in reconciling political fire and ice that in recent years he has been tipped for the top job at both the European Union and Nato,” reported The Independent.

“In the past few days there has been speculation about my motives, and the only answer is: [the interests of] the Netherlands,” he said in a brief statement to parliament announcing his resignation.

“Although it earned him long applause from MPs,” said The Economist, “not all were convinced.”

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