AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A leading member of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's cabinet resigned on Thursday, weakening the government ahead of a national election in March in which it is trailing in the polls.
Justice Minister Ard van der Steur unexpectedly told parliament he would step down amid a debate over the handling of information relating to a settlement prosecutors struck with a drug dealer in 2000.
The affair centers around a settlement with drug baron Cees Helman, who received a tax free payment of around 2 million euros as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
It resurfaced earlier this month following new allegations in a book that detailed an internal email that appeared to show Van der Steur had sought to conceal details of the scandal.
Van der Steur and Rutte had come under fire from opposition lawmakers who accuse them of withholding information and had been expected to call a motion of no confidence later in the debate. The minister took the rare step of resigning before the motion was submitted.
"I told the prime minister I would make a decision after the first round of the debate. I wanted to defend myself against unfounded and unfair accusations that are not based on facts. I will tender my resignation to his majesty the king," Van der Steur said.
The departure of Van der Steur, who is also a member of Rutte's conservative VVD party, was an unwelcome embarrassment ahead of the March 15 election and could dent its popularity.
Rutte is trailing anti-Islam politician and Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, who is leading public opinion polls.
Wilders called Rutte and Van der Steur liars who "consciously chose to conceal the facts."
"It is ... the latest incident with this failing prime minister and his bungling justice minister," Wilders told the 150-seat lower house. "The sooner this cabinet of lies and deceit is gone, the better," he said.
Wilders cited an opinion poll from Wednesday showing that more than two-thirds of respondents believed Rutte knew parliament had been misinformed.
The minister is the third member of Rutte's liberal VVD party to resign over the scandal since 2015.
(Reporting By Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling; Editing by Alison Williams and Dominic Evans)