By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) -The British government apologised on Monday for its botched attempt to protect a ruling party lawmaker by changing rules designed to prevent corruption in parliament, a debacle in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s integrity has been questioned.
The row triggered by the case of lawmaker Owen Paterson, who was found to have broken rules on paid lobbying, and by Johnson’s mishandling of it, is the latest in a series of scandals that have damaged the Conservative government’s image.
“I would like to express my regret and that of my ministerial colleagues over the mistake made last week,” minister Steve Barclay told parliament’s House of Commons during a debate on the fallout from the Paterson affair.
Johnson did not take part in the debate, saying that he had a prior engagement to visit a hospital in northern England, prompting opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer to accuse him of “running scared when required to lead”.
In a video clip recorded for media before the debate, Johnson was unapologetic, saying lawmakers should be held to account for unethical behaviour but insisting the rules for doing so did need to be changed.
“What we’ve got to make sure is that we take all this very, very seriously and that we get it right,” he said.
Johnson last week pushed parliament to protect Paterson by hastily voting to change the rules, only to backtrack after the vote, leaving the Commons in disarray. Paterson has since quit parliament.
Starmer told parliament that Johnson’s actions had damaged him, his party and trust in British democracy.
“When the prime minister gives the green light to corruption, he corrodes that trust,” he said.
A significant minority of Conservative lawmakers had defied the government by refusing to vote to change the rules, and former Conservative prime minister John Major accused Johnson and his ministers of being “politically corrupt”.
The Paterson issue is one of several scandals on ethical standards, or the lack of them, dogging Johnson and his team, including the questionable funding of his own luxury holidays and the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment.
The government has said both were within the rules, but the assurances have not quelled criticism.
Adding to the embarrassment, the Sunday Times reported that wealthy donors who had given 3 million pounds ($4 million) to the Conservative Party had then got seats in parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords.
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan defended the Lords appointments system on Monday, saying that a “rich mix” was desirable in the unelected chamber.
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(Additional reporting by Sarah Young, Kylie MacLellan and Guy Faulconbridge, writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Hugh Lawson)