The depth of antagonism between the cabinet colleagues Ken Clarke and Theresa May was laid bare yesterday, as the Justice Secretary publicly accused Ms May of making "laughable and childlike" comments about the Human Rights Act.
In round two of the saga over the Home Secretary's provocative conference speech on Tuesday, Mr Clarke gave an interview in which he said Ms May had enraged judges and broken the cabinet convention of collective responsibility by calling for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped.
In an interview with his local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post, Mr Clarke reiterated in even stronger language his view that Ms May was wrong to claim that an immigrant had been allowed to stay in Britain because of a cat.
He said: "I sat and listened to Theresa's speech and I'll have to be very polite to Theresa when I meet her, but in my opinion she should really address her researchers and advisers very severely for assuring her that a complete nonsense example in her speech was true."
He went on to add: "It's not only the judges that all get furious when the Home Secretary makes a parody of a court judgment: our commission who are helping us form our view on this are not going to be entertained by laughable, child-like examples being given."
Mr Clarke also criticised Ms May for calling for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped.
"We have a policy and, in my old-fashioned way, when you serve in a Government you express a collective policy of the Government; you don't go round telling everyone your personal opinion is different," he said.
"I'm not going to stand there and say 'In my private opinion this is a terrible thing and we ought to get rid of the Human Rights Act'."
He was later forced by Downing Street to apologise for his remarks and both ministers were called to a "routine" meeting at No 10 to discuss – officials said – trade. The pair were then pictured smiling as they left together.
But the choreographed show of unity did nothing to dispel the impression of a serious rift at the top of the Government's law and order departments.
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, tried to play down the row, claiming Mr Clarke and Ms May were "on the same page". But there is mounting speculation that Mr Clarke, 71, will be moved out of the sensitive Ministry of Justice post when David Cameron carries out his first ministerial reshuffle – most likely next year. It was significant that Downing Street briefed that the Prime Minister was backing Ms May over Mr Clarke in the row.
Yesterday Mr Clarke issued a statement slightly tempering his remarks.
"I consider this issue closed. The Prime Minister has made the position clear, and I fully support it. There is a problem with deporting foreign prisoners, which I have always agreed with Theresa needs to be addressed. The Government's Commission on a Bill of Rights is under way. I do rather regret the colourful language I used at one point in my interview."
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