Human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti hit back at Cabinet minister Andy Burnham today for trying to "smear" her association with resigned MP David Davis.
Ms Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, demanded an apology and threatened legal action if the Culture Secretary continued "down the path of innuendo and attempted character assassination".
Her comments came after Mr Burnham suggested she had been "seduced" by the former shadow home secretary's opposition to 42-day pre-charge detention and that they had taken part in late night "heart-melting" phone calls.
Ms Chakrabarti, who disclosed last week she had tried to persuade Mr Davis not to resign his seat over civil liberties, today wrote to Mr Burnham accusing him of "debasing" his office.
The Culture Secretary's aides insisted he had not intended the interpretation that had been put on his remarks, but that he regretted any personal offence caused.
The row erupted after Mr Burnham told Progress magazine he was dismayed by people who were "seduced" by Mr Davis's claim to liberal credentials.
He went on to say he found something "very curious in the man who was - and still is I believe - an exponent of capital punishment, having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti".
Mr Davis, who is fighting a by-election on the issue of civil liberties after resigning yesterday in protest over 42 days, attacked Mr Burnham last night for indulging in "personal smears" and "lies".
In a strongly-worded letter to the Culture Secretary this afternoon, Ms Chakrabarti said: "I must say that I find this behaviour curious, coming as it does from a Cabinet Minister; let alone someone with a partner and family of his own.
"By your comments you debase not only a great office of State but the vital debate about fundamental rights and freedoms in this country.
"Indeed you seem reluctant to engage in that debate except in this tawdry fashion.
"I look forward to your written apology as I'm sure does Mrs Davis.
"If on the other hand you choose to continue down the path of innuendo and attempted character assassination, you will find that the privileged legal protection of the Parliament chamber does not extend to slurs made in the wider public domain."
A spokesman for Mr Burnham said: "Andy Burnham was making a political point about David Davis' inconsistent views on capital punishment and civil liberties.
"An interpretation has been placed on Andy's remarks that he did not intend.
"His comments related to politics and nothing else. He regrets if any personal offence has been caused."
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie confirmed today that he would not stand in the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election triggered by Mr Davis's resignation.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they will not enter candidates in the by-election and Mr Davis's most likely opponents now include a market trader from Northampton and The Mad Cow Girl - party secretary of the Monster Raving Loonies.
Other potential candidates include the current Miss Great Britain, a political writer, a Blackpool pub landlord who campaigns against the smoking ban and an artist representing the Cleethorpes-based Generalist Party.
Mr Davis won the support today of veteran Labour left-winger Tony Benn.
Mr Benn said he was "totally opposed" to the anti-terror measure and urged Gordon Brown to ditch it if Mr Davis was re-elected in Haltemprice and Howden.
Mr Benn, father of Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, wrote to Labour chairman Harriet Harman saying he felt free to offer his backing to the Tory former shadow home secretary since Labour was refusing to enter a candidate in the contest.
A spokeswoman for Gordon Brown said the Prime Minister had full confidence in Mr Burnham.Reuse content