By Andrew MacAskill and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government made an embarrassing U-turn on Thursday on plans to overhaul the system for combating parliamentary corruption, with the lawmaker whose case had provoked the row quitting his job.
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 about proposals 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 and the wider system of investigating lawmakers.
But with growing outrage from opposition politicians and some within its own party, the government backtracked, and said there would be another vote on the proposed suspension. Paterson then announced he was quitting "the cruel world of politics".
"The last two years have been an indescribable nightmare for my family and me," Paterson, whose wife took her own life last year, said in a statement. "I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of."
Johnson said he was "very sad" that Paterson was stepping down as a lawmaker, adding it "must have been a very difficult decision but I can understand why...he has decided to put his family first".
Before the government's volte-face, a number of Conservative politicians had criticised their party's handling of the row, which commentators said reflected badly on the prime minister.
"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.
Earlier, Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and a former head of Britain's MI5 domestic spy service, 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 in London.
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 large 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 said Johnson was "leading his troops through the sewer".
"Boris Johnson must now apologise to the entire country for this grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend," Starmer said. "This isn't the first time he's done this but it must be the last."
Tim Bale, 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 the opposition in recent polls despite criticism of the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a 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, Kylie MacLellan and Alistair Smout; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Giles Elgood)