William Hague has been warned by a senior chief constable that his plans to allow householders greater rights to attack burglars could "seriously increase" levels of violent crime and murder.
Crispian Strachan, the Chief Constable of Northumbria, added to criticism of the Tory leader's plans by claiming Britain could become as violent as the United States if people had greater protection in self-defence cases.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats also rounded on Mr Hague, accusing him of "naked opportunism" by exploiting the public backlash over the jailing of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin last week for shooting dead an intruder.
Distinguished judges, lawyers and ex-offenders' groups added their criticisms. But Mr Hague refused to be cowed. Tory sources said last night he planned to further harden his stance by unveiling more reform proposals.
They would include toughening up on the "three strikes and you're out" laws by giving an automatic prison sentence for criminals who offend soon after leaving jail. The police and Crown Prosecution Service could be issued with new guidelines to exercise "greater restraint" in taking self-defence cases to court.
The law could be changed to allow people to use "reasonable force" in self-defence if they believe their life is in danger. At present, reasonable force is only allowed when people can prove their life was in danger.
Meanwhile, lawyers acting for Martin confirmed yesterday that they would appeal against his conviction and sentence on the basis of the judge's summing-up. Nick Makin, Martin's solicitor, said that an appeal would be lodged tomorrow based on the fact that the judge "failed to properly advise the jury on the law of self-defence".
Mr Hague's comments also placed David Payne, the solicitor representing the family of the murdered burglar, Fred Barras, and his injured accomplice, Brendon Fearon, in a difficult position.
Mr Payne has been a Tory councillor in Nottinghamshire for 25 years. But yesterday he was unable to support his leader's proposals. He said: "Each case is judged on its circumstances and the jury takes a view about it on those facts." He added that he saw no need for even a clarification on law of self-defence.
Tony Blair accused Mr Hague of "cynicism" in using the Martin case in the local election campaign and pointed out that crime had soared during the years of Conservative rule. "I remind the Conservatives that when they were in power, crime doubled and in all their 18 years in office they never once introduced the rather vague measures they are now proposing," the Prime Minister told an audience of local councillors.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said: "I am not going to take advice on law and order from the Tories. Crime doubled under the last Conservative government and the number of people convicted dropped by a third." He defended the Government's record, saying that the number of domestic burglaries had dropped by 20 per cent in the last three years.
Mr Straw said that he personally understood the need for a justification of selfdefence but he was "yet to be persuaded" that the existing law was at fault in the case.
Speaking as he unveiled the eight consecutive annual drop in Northumbria's crime figures, Mr Strachan said he would not want to see Britain become like the US, with high rates of murder and violent crime. "I've heard comparisons to America where there is a slightly lower rate of domestic burglary but a very high rate of violent crime and murder. I think that is because they have a right to defend themselves at all costs. I would not want to see that introduced here," he said.
Peter Bradley, head of the rural group of Labour MPs, accused Mr Hague of promoting a "lynch-mob mentality" similar to that in the US.
The Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, accused the Tory leader of "ill-considered populism". He said: "What the Tories are suggesting - more people taking more of the law into their own hands - is not just foolish but almost certainly dangerous."
There were further claims of jury intimidation in Martin's trial last night. A second member of the public telephoned a Norfolk radio station, to claim jurors felt threatened by people staring at them from the public gallery andfrightened as they left Norwich Crown Court during the trial. Last week a woman claiming to be a juror called another Norwich radio station and told a presenter that the trial had "changed her life".
However, a spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which yesterday refused to investigate the allegations, emphasised that there had been no such complaint from a jury member made to any of the appropriate authorities.