February 13, 2024 - 4:00pm

Imagine if Nigel Farage were to win the next general election on an anti-immigration ticket. Unlikely, I know, but stay with me.

In this scenario, he does so well that no else has a credible mandate to become prime minister. However, lacking a majority, he needs to form a coalition government. The trouble is that that his potential partners — different factions of a fractured Conservative Party — are playing hard to get. The negotiations drag on. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months.

Meanwhile, the previous government continues in a caretaker capacity. It has neither a mandate nor a majority, but in the absence of a new government there’s no one else to run the country. The caretaker prime minister is trapped: in office, but not in power. This might not be plausible in the UK, where coalitions are one of the few things that happen at lightning speed. But this scenario does describe Dutch politics right now.

In the wake of a momentous election last year, the mainstream parties find themselves with no choice — but also no desire — to install Geert Wilders, a Right-wing populist, as PM of the Netherlands. His potential coalition partners are in an especially tight spot. Last week, one of the party leaders — Peter Omtzigt of the moderately populist New Social Contract (NSC) — couldn’t take it anymore and abruptly withdrew from the negotiations. He may yet return, but for now his toys are out of the pram and the talks have stalled. As Wilders recently tweeted on a related issue,“we hebben een serieus probleem” (no translation necessary).

If mainstream politicians think that obstruction is a sustainable strategy then they’re mistaken. That much is made clear by the first poll since the talks broke down. As the findings demonstrate, the voters are blaming Omtzigt, not Wilders, for the political chaos. Omtzigt’s party has lost almost half its support since the election; the same goes for the VVD (the party of Mark Rutte, the caretaker PM). 

If the mainstream parties won’t allow the formation of a government with a democratic mandate, then fresh elections must be held. However, that would give Wilders even more seats in the Dutch parliament — 52 out of 150 according to the above poll.

On those numbers, he could get close to an absolute majority without the troublesome Omtzigt. An alliance that also comprised his former colleagues in the VVD, plus the populist Farmer-Citizen Movement, would have 73 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. That’s three short of a majority, but just look at who’d hold the balance of power.

It may be a surprise to us in the UK, but the Netherlands has a Bible Belt. This includes an uncompromising Calvinist minority, which is represented in the Dutch parliament by the Reformed Political Party (SGP). In its 106-year history, the party has preferred to stick to its principles (including opposition to female suffrage) rather than participate in government.

Despite its disdain for worldly power, the SGP — with its three seats — could end up deciding whether Wilders becomes prime minister.

It seems incredible that this could happen in the archetypal liberal democracy. But when establishments comprehensively fail — especially on sensitive issues like immigration — the incredible is what happens. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.