If the United Kingdom pulled out of the European Convention on Human Rights – as some right-wing Tories are demanding – it would be the first country to do so since a junta of neo-fascist colonels seized power in Greece in the 1960s, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke warned yesterday.
He revealed that when the UK takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers in November, the Government will use this position to try to get the remit of the court redefined and reduce the number of judges.
Mr Clarke and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are also setting up a commission to examine the possibility of drawing up a British Bill of Rights.
Five years ago, when David Cameron suggested replacing the European Convention with a British Bill of Rights, he provoked a scathing reaction from Mr Clarke, who was then chairing a Conservative Party commission on constitutional issues. Mr Clarke told The Daily Telegraph the Tory leader's comments were "xenophobic and legal nonsense" and "anti-foreign". The Justice Secretary laughed when these comments were repeated by the BBC's Andrew Marr yesterday and replied: "It depends how you make the case" for a British Bill.
If it went into law, MPs could be expected to refer to it as grounds to reject rulings from the European Court of Human Rights that run counter to public opinion in this country. This month, MPs voted overwhelmingly to defy a European court ruling that would give prisoners the right to vote.
Despite that vote, Mr Clarke insisted the Government would comply with the law, and compared MPs who objected with "a litigant who doesn't want to be told what the law is but wishes it was something else".
He said: "There's no question of this Government denouncing the European Convention on Human Rights.
"Only the Greek colonels have ever repudiated it," he added, referring to the junta that seized power in Greece in 1967 and was overthrown by a popular revolt seven years later.
Mr Clarke also brushed off rumours he was on the point of being sacked because of the outrage he has provoked on the Tory right over voting rights for prisoners and other issues.
Several Tory MPs have been arguing for a cabinet reshuffle, with the favourite candidates for the sack being Mr Clarke and the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who presided over the botched proposal to sell off the Forestry Commission's land.
One report, which Downing Street dismissed yesterday, was that Mr Clarke would be replaced by former Tory leader Michael Howard.
Mr Clarke emphasised the most "difficult" policies he has put forward were agreed in advance.
"The annual reshuffle is a boring cliché of today's media," he said. "My position has all been based on the collective view of the government. David Cameron runs a collective government.
"The more difficult things I've been propounding have been personally discussed and agreed with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but they're accepted by all the Cabinet.
"Nobody thinks I'm from the hanging and flogging wing of the party.
"I think it would be quite a step to suddenly swing to the right, certainly to go back to the kind of law and order policies when each party accuse the other of being soft on crime."