Kenneth Clarke attempted to defuse the storm over his comments on rape last night as he admitted he had chosen his words "very, very badly".
The Justice Secretary apologised for his ill-judged suggestion that some rapes were less serious than others, confessing he had got "bogged down in a silly exchange". His remarks two days ago provoked calls for his dismissal.
The storm also threw Government plans to reform the sentencing system into crisis – a proposal that rape defendants should receive a 50 per cent "discount" if they plead guilty now looks likely to be vetoed by David Cameron.
Appearing on BBC1's Question Time last night, Mr Clarke said: "I obviously upset a lot of people by what I said and I'm sorry if I did, by the way I put it. All rape is serious. It's one of the gravest crimes. My choice of words was wrong. It's because I got bogged down in a silly exchange."
He added: "As a politician I made a mistake by allowing myself to get drawn into a great long argument about exactly what the gradations of rape were. I phrased it very, very badly because I upset a lot of people who want to give more priority to rape."
The Justice Secretary provoked the controversy when he drew a distinction in a radio interview on Wednesday between date rape and "serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman". Put to him that "rape is rape", he replied: "No, it is not." Downing Street made little attempt to disguise its anger over the exchange after the Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, ambushed Mr Cameron on the subject in the Commons. Plans to publish the Government's white paper on sentencing next week have been dropped.
Writing in The Independent today, Mr Miliband says the Justice Secretary's admirers are wrong to regret the sight of Mr Clarke being "edged towards the Cabinet room exit door".
He writes: "Halving sentences for violent criminals including rapists who plead guilty will do nothing to increase safety on our streets."
In an open letter to Mr Cameron yesterday, three charities accused the minister of risking "confusing the public and undermining the effectiveness of the law in this area". Rape Crisis England and Wales, the End Violence Against Women coalition and Rights of Women criticised Mr Clarke for calling for plans to increase the maximum sentence reduction for sex offenders from 33 to 50 per cents. The Sentencing Council for England and Wales has told the Government it has not identified any countries offering sentence discounts of more than 35 per cent.
Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the Justice Select Committee, said: "There's a very serious risk that the level at which the offence is treated will not be commensurate with the general public view of how serious it is."
The Prison Officers' Association, which is on a collision course with the Justice Secretary over plans to extend privatisation in jails, joined calls for him to consider his position. Its general secretary, Steve Gillan, said the association's members last week passed a vote of no confidence in the minister who it believes is "out of touch with reality".