UK government backs down on plans to rip up corruption rules after sleaze claims

By Andrew MacAskill and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday backtracked on plans to overhaul the system for combating parliamentary corruption after a backlash which included his adviser on ethics calling it a “damaging moment” for democracy.

Faced with unhappiness in his party and headlines accusing the prime minister and his Conservative administration of “sleaze”, the government said it would think again on plans it had pushed through parliament only the day before.

Backed by Johnson, Conservative lawmakers narrowly voted to halt a proposed 30-day suspension from parliament of Owen Paterson, a former minister, who had been found guilty by parliament’s standards watchdog of repeatedly lobbying for two firms, which paid him nearly three times his annual salary.

Instead, they pushed through a proposal to delay the suspension and set up a new committee to review his case.

“This is one of the most unedifying episodes I have seen in my 16 years as a Member of Parliament,” said Mark Harper, a Conservative lawmaker who rebelled against his party to oppose the plans.

Another Conservative politician, Peter Bone, said his office had been vandalised because he voted in favour of the changes.

Faced with growing outrage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons who is in charge of organising government business, said although parliament had voted to change the system, the plan could not proceed without the cooperation of opposition parties.

Parliament will now be given a fresh opportunity to vote on Paterson’s proposed suspension, a spokesman for the prime minister said.

‘DAMAGING MOMENT’

Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and a former head of Britain’s MI5 domestic spy service, earlier said blocking the suspension of a lawmaker was “deeply at odds” with the traditions of British democracy.

The vote was “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament,” Evans said in speech to the Institute of Government think tank.

He said it was wrong for lawmakers after a short debate to reject an investigation that lasted two years.

Johnson has faced other accusations of wrongdoing recently, including plans to have party donors secretly contribute to a luxury renovation of his Downing Street flat, and the government handing out billions of contracts for protective medical equipment to those with links to those in power.

The opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the government of corruption and “wallowing in sleaze”, and said Johnson was “leading his troops through the sewer”.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, said allegations of corruption could be deeply damaging, citing the sleaze rows that dogged the last days of John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s.

However, Bale said the Conservatives had maintained their lead over opposition parties including Labour in recent polls despite criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a recent rise in the cost of living.

“What’s happened this week won’t do it any favours,” he said. “But at the moment, I wouldn’t bet too much money on us having reached some kind of tipping point.”

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Michael Holden and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Giles Elgood and Jonathan Oatis)

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