It is not every day that two newspaper titles from two different media companies feature the same headline on their front page: Gwendolyn Rutten’s ‘unlikely comeback’. Unlikely? Real?
Don’t teach a born politician like Gwendolyn Rutten how to play the media. A few weeks ago, she took advantage of the appointment of Paul Van Tigchelt as Minister of Justice and especially as federal deputy Prime Minister to announce her retirement from national politics.
Rutten withdrew to Aarschot, she said, where she is mayor. It’s hard to imagine a worse lair than the ‘capital of the Marginal Triangle’ to hide in. Even then, a bell might have gone off among informed observers that not every threat in the Wetstraat and surrounding areas can be taken literally.
Certainly not when that much older man named Patrick Dewael announced in the same movement that he would not come to the next party office – would anyone have dared to sit in his seat instead? – and toyed with the idea of leaving the party.
That is likely, at a time when his deal was completed in Limburg for his son Frank to become the first successor in the Flemish Parliament. In 2025, Frank Dewael will actually succeed Marino Keulen and will therefore be the first member of the fourth generation of his illustrious family to call himself a member of parliament – after great-grandfather Arthur Vanderpoorten, Herman Vanderpoorten’s great-uncle and father Patrick Dewael.
Patrick Dewael is far too sensible to plunge his own party into an even worse crisis. This also applies to Gwendolyn Rutten.
Even then, it was not about real threats of departure or dismissal, but about a political signal to the party leadership: stop panic football.
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It is still about eight months until the elections. Why should Open VLD have to wait patiently for N-VA to run with even more voters – as if that party has had such a brilliant run in opposition. Certainly, Sander Loones made an impression in Parliament with his razor-sharp criticism of the budget. The question is: impress who, with what?
Impression on the insiders, certainly, with budget figures whose technical details are only really understood by an even smaller group of experts.
Yet Loones’ criticism of the budget preparation obviously had a particularly large political scope: he compromised the Prime Minister’s credibility and, in one go, his sense of responsibility, and that reflected very harshly on Open VLD, also because Prime Minister Alexander De Croo does not understand the art of strategic retreat: he desperately wanted to prove what could not be proven, namely that he was right on every figure after the decimal point.
Gwendolyn Rutten already agreed then Knack, more than a year before she threatened to limit her existence to Aarschot and the surrounding area: ‘A budget is always political. It’s an estimate. Don’t you just correct the figures during the first budget correction – isn’t that a perfectly normal procedure?’
Once again: don’t teach Gwendolyn Rutten how politics works. She learned her trade in the early purple years as a policy officer for then party chairman Karel De Gucht. She immediately understood that the young lawyer was a born talent; her passage as chief of staff for general policy to successive Flemish ministers Fientje Moerman and Dirk Van Mechelen (2005-2009) was a first intensive internship for the real work that still awaited her.
It is one of those many wonderful coincidences in history that the general public really got to know her as an unexpected outsider in the presidential elections between, yes, newcomer (and winner) Alexander De Croo and supposedly experienced veteran (but loser) Marino Keulen. Rutten came third, but with almost 28 percent of the votes. She was already starting to master the tricks of the trade, and now she had also created her own name recognition. De Gucht looked at it with a frown.
Since then, Gwendolyn Rutten has been a politician in Open VLD to be reckoned with. A strange figure, that’s for sure. She has been an architect and part of the party’s successes, but also its decline. She knows her files, she dares to play the game very politically and very liberally, always with an eye on what’s in for me.
She can also sell a show like no other. She showed herself The morning ever make up like Margaret Thatcher – you needed a sharp eye to see the difference with the real Lady Thatcher, and that in a photo without digital tricks. Ours is too modest Iron Lady of the Hagueland never been. That has to be the case, for a woman who wants to survive in a party of male putters and alleged ladykillers that Open VLD has always been and remains.
It was also the dream political environment for a macha like Gwendolyn Rutten. Power fascinates her: to do what she wants to do, and also about power itself – someone with a bit of allure doesn’t sit in a parliament or a party board to watch things from a distance, right?
And so Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Minister of Health and voting cannon Maggie De Block were first surprised and then bewildered when, shortly before the 2019 elections, during a rare joint press conference, they suddenly received an unannounced visit from party chairman Gwendolyn Rutten, who in one hijacked the whole event with difficulty and without prior agreement by declaring himself candidate prime minister. Rutten could estimate better than anyone that this was also the intimate ambition of at least one other liberal in the room. That’s precisely why she had to outrun Alexander.
Fortunately, liberals are also wonderful egoists in turn – without them the Wetstraat would certainly be more boring. After the elections, Rutten was of course reimbursed in cash for her solo slim. Soon she had already succeeded in creating an early variant of Vivaldi, but at the time it was still called purple-green. Especially for center-right Flanders, that name alone is a framing too far, and that allowed the group of Alexander De Croo – Vincent Van Quickenborne – Egbert Lachaert to take Rutten’s foot.
For a moment she thought she was actually in the running as prime minister, but a targeted leak put an end to that formula and her ambition. The trio went all out: Rutten had thought and hoped to have herself succeeded by Bart Tommelein, so that she could still have played an important role in setting the party line (and handing out possible ministerial posts), but Lachaert had both the broad right of his party as the deep blue sympathy.
Tommelein withdrew to Ostend, sulking and disappointed, Rutten pretended to be in Aarschot. In reality, she remained alert and alert to national issues that concerned her. Her colleague from Environment in the Flemish government will experience this if an agreement has to be made regarding nitrogen and all those other related files. Natuurpunt has a formidable opponent: Gwendolyn Rutten knows the Ferraris map – a map from 1770-1777 that is often used today to determine the ‘natural condition’ of the Flemish landscape. She shouldn’t know about it.
Crises are challenges, the saying goes, and what was happening in Open VLD in recent months was a piece of cake for a politician like Gwendolyn Rutten. While she was supposedly sidetracked, her successors in the party leadership made a visible mess of things – wonderful. However, in doing so they brought the entire party to the brink of collapse. It couldn’t have been better, but at the same time it was becoming too dangerous, also for Rutten himself. But suddenly there were opportunities for the taking, because of course things had to be different and better.
What better way to take back the reins than to pretend to jump off the moving wagon with the right sense of drama? Don’t teach a drama queen what acting is.
When Knack a few months ago compared the Liberal party leadership to a society that stages Shakespeare’s dramas instead of doing politics and assigned Gwendolyn Rutten the role of Lady Macbeth, she promptly responded by text message, with a (shortened) representation from her famous quote: ‘Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done, is done.’ Translated: ‘Things that cannot be helped anyway should not even be considered. What’s done is done.’
Gwendolyn Rutten also expresses that statement to the fullest. A sense of drama goes hand in hand with a fine (although not flawless) political feeling, considerable knowledge of the dossier and an assessment to maximize the possible advantage in any case.
Bart Somers had his reasons for choosing Mechelen. The (in his case not very useful) order on the Antwerp Open VLD electoral list for the Flemish Parliament will undoubtedly have played a role in this consideration: at best he would be a list pusher. That remains a so-called place of honor, but one that, under the circumstances, does not provide a hundred percent certainty of being elected.
Somers away, into Rutten. Coincidence helps, but she is of course well aware that her party does not have a surplus of MPs who are able to command a place in the Flemish core cabinet from one day to the next, who can handle the content of the files and assess them politically. That’s why Gwendolyn Rutten is suddenly ‘back’, so to speak. While of course she had never really been away.
And suddenly Gwendolyn Rutten is ‘back’, so to speak. While of course she had never really been away.
It is a trick that you can only play if you realize that you are actually irreplaceable at that specific moment. At some point in the 1980s, the legendary PS chairman Guy Spitaels suddenly ‘disappeared’ from the scene. He was gone, simply, untraceable and unreachable: he felt he was being treated with too little respect (and too much contradiction).
Spitaels’ nickname was Dieu, so ubiquitous was the man, so much of an impression did he make on the average militant. Panic promptly broke out throughout the party, including the union and health insurance fund, and even in three-quarters of the French-speaking press. That was of course what Spitaels wanted: they begged him to appear again. Which he did after some insistence, smiling affably, and more powerful than ever.
Gwendolyn Rutten did not have to write an application letter to succeed Bart Somers, not only as Flemish Minister of the Interior, but also as Deputy Prime Minister. Together with Hilde Crevits (CD&V), she is suddenly the most powerful woman in the Flemish government, and as a result, again the female number one in Open VLD. The elections will be held within six months: Open VLD will certainly be able to use it until June 9, 2024. Aarschot can wait.
Gwendolyn Rutten apologizes for the past few weeks: ‘Maybe I exaggerated a bit.’ That’s how she really said it: “Maybe.”