There is only applause at the VVD conference when Dilan Yesilgöz thanks Eric van der Burg

The VVD has often had difficult times, and always came out of them. And that is why, is the message at the VVD conference in Noordwijkerhout, everything will be fine again for the VVD. “A storm,” party leader Dilan Yesilgöz calls the situation her party has been in for some time now. “But a storm also passes.”

Outgoing State Secretary Eric van der Burg (Asylum), around whom the VVD party conference in Noordwijkerhout largely revolves, says: “We are completely exposed to the wind, and it is very annoying that the dispersal law also divides the party. That’s why I thought in advance: oh, that could be an intense conference.”

Photo Olivier Middendorp

But the VVD can do something that no other party can: remove the apparent unrest by deciding together that there is no more unrest. It is difficult for Yesilgöz and the party leadership for an hour and a half. A long line of members can ask questions at the microphone about the poor election results, the formation with the PVV, and about the hassle with Van der Burg’s dispersal law, which the VVD campaigned against, but which the VVD Senate faction last week voted in favor.

Wolf in sheep’s clothes

At the microphone, VVD member Diederik Ruys (53) from The Hague says that Geert Wilders is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. “Be alert!” There is hardly any response in the audience, and there is no response from Yesilgöz. Ruys thinks, he later says, that the VVD is “afraid” of losing its position as a party in the center of power. He also thinks that the VVD will still decide to enter a cabinet with the PVV. And the fact that the PVV became the largest party, according to Ruys, is because of the VVD: “We helped that party into the saddle by lifting the cordon sanitary.”

The conference would be about the European elections in the spring, with VVD party leader Malik Azmani at the center. The party had known since the end of last year that it would be about something else. In Noordwijkerhout, Dilan Yesilgöz has to address the members for the first time since the election defeat. Her leadership is shaky. Conservative VVD members believe that they should govern fully with the PVV, and are angry that the dispersal law is being passed anyway. More progressive VVD members believe that the PVV should not be discussed. You hear doubts on both wings as to whether she can take away the unrest. Like the outspoken Diederik Ruys: “I think she seems very weak.”

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VVD leader Dilan Yesilgöz during the swearing-in of the new House of Representatives.

There are also VVD members who line up at the microphone and ask for support from the entire room for Yesilgöz. In the corridors, Yesilgöz is approached by members who come and tell her unsolicited that they support her “100 percent”. And there are many VVD members who say that things are going well: “Look at all the people who are here and how nice the atmosphere is.” Other VVD members have to laugh about that. “That things are going well? No, of course things are not going well,” says former MP and former councilor in The Hague Anne Mulder. “There was a lot of uncertainty, even during the campaign: you want to work with the PVV, but not if that party becomes too big?” But Yesilgöz, says Mulder, is just getting started. “It is always difficult for a new leader. Rutte had that too. He then came out purified. We now also have to find a consistent course.”

Photo Olivier Middendorp

Previous storms

In Noordwijkerhout on this Saturday afternoon there is a lot of talk about other VVD conferences where the party and the party leader, then still Rutte, had a hard time with each other. The ‘storms’ that the party previously weathered. In Rosmalen, in 2009, when the VVD had about twelve seats in the polls, just like now, and Rutte had almost been sidelined. And in 2007 in Veldhoven, when Rutte had expelled his rival Rita Verdonk from the House of Representatives faction and almost split the party in two. In Noordwijkerhout, Rutte himself starts talking about it to journalists. He laughs and says that at the time 40 percent of the room wanted him gone. “You thought it was only a third because I said so at the time. But that was a bluff!”

He sits at the back of the room to listen to Yesilgöz. Her speech lasts half an hour. The room is completely full, the mood is lukewarm, but not rebellious. She receives meager applause when she says that the VVD can be proud of its one and a half million voters, and that the VVD is “the last remaining people’s party”.

There is only loud applause when she thanks Eric van der Burg, who is watching along the side path. The VVD dropped the Rutte IV cabinet over asylum and migration, and as party leader Yesilgöz campaigned against Van der Burg’s dispersal law. The number of asylum seekers coming to the Netherlands must be reduced before we can talk about dispersal, she thought. But Van der Burg also says afterwards that there are many local administrators in the room: mayors and aldermen. There is relatively much support for the distribution law. Van der Burg and his law have an easy afternoon.


As Rutte did at every difficult conference, Yesilgöz criticizes himself. A few days after the November elections, she had said that the VVD would only want to govern in a tolerating construction with the PVV. “People were so angry,” she says about the reactions of fellow party members. She had, she now says, “focused too much on what we were not going to do, and not enough on what we did want to do.”

Does this mean that the VVD still wants to govern with the PVV? Or does she just regret her tone? The political meaning of her self-criticism is not clear. Not in her speech, nor afterwards. She had a sneer in her text for PVV leader Geert Wilders. “If you very skillfully send angry messages into the world, you can even win elections with it.” Almost no one in the room responds.

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