THE HAGUE: The Labour (PvdA) Party decided yesterday not to approve the purchase of one or more of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) test aircraft. It was not clear yesterday evening what this would mean for the future of the project, or that of the coalition government.

The Lower House was expected to decide yesterday to approve the purchase of at least one or perhaps two JSF test planes. At the beginning of the debate, which started at 3.30 p.m., PvdA MP Angelien Eijsink however said that her party had received too little information to decide whether the JSF was the best plane for the best price. The party would therefore not approve the purchase of the plane.

In the debate, which was planned to last until 11.00 p.m., the PvdA position was crucial. Without its support a maximum of 71 MPs could vote for the purchase, not enough for a majority in the 150-member Lower House.

The purchase of one or two test planes has been viewed as a definite choice by the Netherlands for the JSF as successor to the F16. The US wants The Hague to make a decision by 1 May at the latest.

Before the debate, insiders considered the PvdA might seek a scenario of the Netherlands buying one test plane accompanied by a statement that this emphatically would not signify a definite order for JSFs. The PvdA went a step further, however, and its “no” brings the risk of a cabinet crisis.

All the PvdA ministers earlier signed the cabinet decision to buy two test planes. Now that the PvdA MPs have opposed this, a Lower House majority is asking the cabinet to reverse this decision.

The question now is how the Christian Democrats (CDA) will react. The CDA MPs said yesterday they wanted the test aircraft bought anyway. The CDA cabinet members had not yet decided their position.

However, Defence State Secretary Jack de Vries (CDA) stated that he “formally does not need” a Lower House majority. On the other hand, he added, it is customary to listen to “the House’s opinion”. If this leads to a majority-backed motion against the purchase, then that would be reason for “discussions within the cabinet.”

The cabinet can ignore the House majority. The PvdA MPs must then choose between two evils: accept being ignored or support a motion of no confidence in the cabinet. The cabinet can also decide not to buy test planes. In that case, the CDA will suffer loss of face.

Defence State Secretary De Vries is “leading” the JSF project and has been vehemently supporting it. Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop, a member of CDA and PvdA’s small coalition partner ChristenUnie, practically plays no part in the question.

CDA and the conservatives (VVD), orthodox Christian party SGP and independent MP Rita Verdonk, with 65 seats between them, are in favour of the JSF. So is ChristenUnie, although its stance has become unclear following the PvdA move. All other parties are against the test aircraft deal.