John Reid was accused of "craven hypocrisy" after his condemnation of a five-year minimum sentence for a dangerous paedophile sparked a public row with the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.
The Home Secretary was criticised for pandering to demands for tougher sentences by some newspapers even though prisoners are eligible for release after serving only half of their jail terms because of new legislation brought in by the Government.
Ministers' attempts to present a tough stance on law and order were undermined when the Home Office admitted in a written House of Commons reply that 53 life-sentence prisoners jailed since 2000 had already been released.
Downing Street backed Mr Reid's unusually strong intervention over the minimum sentence imposed on Craig Sweeney for abducting and sexually abusing a three-year-old girl. It suggested he was right to "articulate public concern" and to step in if judges were out of touch with public mood.
But Lord Goldsmith let it be known that he believed the Home Secretary's move was "not helpful" and John Denham, Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said it would have been better for Mr Reid to allow an appeal by the Attorney General against the lenient sentence to proceed without intervening. "It is quite important that politicians resist that ill-informed pressure [from the media] and ill-informed analysis of what is going on," he said.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "If this Home Secretary is going to be pushed from pillar to post by tabloid headline-writers, there is no way he will retain the credibility and authority to rehabilitate the Home Office."
Mr Reid's problems were compounded when a former Labour attorney general warned that his comments may allow Sweeney's lawyers to argue that the case had been prejudiced.
Lord Morris of Aberavon said: "The Attorney General is the guarantor of the public interest and has a statutory responsibility. He determines whether the matter should be referred, and then for the court."
Sir Oliver Popplewell, a former High Court judge, said that he considered the intervention "unwise".
Tony Blair appeared to side with Mr Reid. His official spokesman said: " Where there appears to be a disconnect between the public's commonsense view of right and wrong and how it sees that reflected in judicial decisions then it is right and proper for the Home Secretary to articulate that concern."Reuse content