A cabinet minister is facing the threat of a highly embarrassing libel action for innuendo linking the senior Conservative David Davis with Britain's leading human rights campaigner, Shami Chakrabarti.
Andy Burnham, who has been tipped as a future prime minister, suggested in a magazine article that Mr Davis had indulged in "late night, hand wringing, heart-melting phone calls" with the director of Liberty.
He told Progress magazine: "To people who get seduced by Tory talk of how liberal they are, I find 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 Burnham also attacked Mr Davis's decision to trigger a by-election to campaign against government plans to allow terror suspects to be detained for up to 42 days without charge.
But Ms Chakrabarti, a former Home Office barrister, issued a stinging rebuke yesterday to the Secretary of State for Culture, accusing him of "debasing" his office, demanding a written apology and threatening to sue him over his remarks. Her letter was copied to the Prime Minister and the Attorney General.
She said: "In that article you set out to smear my dealings with the former shadow Home Secretary. 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. The fruits of any legal action will of course go to Liberty."
Ms Chakrabarti, who is married with a young son, was outraged that a cabinet minister should make such a personal attack on a critic of government policy. She initially refused to comment on his remarks but friends said she took her dramatic step after consulting her husband and colleagues because she now believed "enough is enough".
Mr Davis was uncharacteristically silent yesterday but on Wednesday he issued a statement condemning Mr Burnham. He accused Labour of "smears and lies", adding: "Labour has lost the argument over the erosion of British freedoms. While Gordon Brown cowers in Downing Street, his henchmen are out to attack me personally rather than engage in rational debate."
Mr Brown, attending the Lisbon summit, tried to distance himself from the row and refused to comment. A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Burnham had their full support. But should Ms Chakrabarti carry out her threat it would probably make his position untenable.
Aides to Mr Burnham insisted he was only making "jokey comments". But a spokeswoman stopped short of issuing a full apology. "Andy Burnham was making a political point about David Davis's inconsistent views on capital punishment and civil liberties," she said. "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."
Female MPs claimed the smear tactic would deter women from political life. Eleanor Laing, a shadow Justice minister, said: "This sort of innuendo undermines women in positions of power and influence. If the director of Liberty had been a man, would Andy Burnham have said this?"
Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrats' most senior woman MP, said: "This kind of tawdry salacious gossip about any young woman who becomes prominent in the political world is really shocking. It is going to drive young women out of politics if it continues."
Labour MPs joined in the condemnation. Linda Riordan, the MP for Halifax, said: "I don't think there is a need for that sort of comment, whoever it is from. Shami is a professional woman. He should apologise."
Last night David Davis admitted that his decision to resign meant his frontbench career was effectively over. He told BBC1's Question Time: "I made a calculation [that the resignation] would cost me certain things. One was my career in the cabinet. That seemed to me a cost which, although I would regret it, I would have to meet," he said.
The admission came as the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie said he was not standing in the by-election because The Sun, "couldn't put up the cash".Reuse content