Double crisis rocks cabinet

THE CABINET was close to a full-blown crisis last night as pressure mounted on two of its most high-profile members to step down.

There were calls for Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, to be sacked after he made insensitive and controversial remarks about rape.

And the police launched a probe into claims that Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, persuaded his wife to take speeding points on his behalf.

Clarke provoked fury after he announced plans to halve jail sentences for rapists who plead guilty at an early stage.

Then, in a round of media appearances designed to sell the policy to voters, he added fuel to the flames by suggesting some types of rape were more serious than others.

He implied “date rape” was less serious than “classic rape” or “proper rape”.

During a radio phone-in, one rape victim broke down in tears as she confronted the justice secretary and branded his plans a “disaster”.

Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, called for Clarke to be sacked at Prime Minister’s Questions.

“The justice secretary should not be in his post at the end of the day,” he said.

Downing Street forced Clarke to do a second round of interviews in which he apologised for giving the impression he didn’t take rape seriously.

An aide to the Prime Minister said that the sentencing reforms – which have already been rubber-stamped by the home affairs committee – would now be reviewed.

Serious crimes like murder and rape could be excluded from the plan to give offenders a “discount” for pleading guilty.

Meanwhile, Essex Police said they would speak to “key individuals” over allegations that Huhne asked someone close to him to take penalty points related to a speeding offence. Huhne, himself, contacted police offering to “help them with their inquiries”. Detectives are expected to interview his ex-wife Vicky Pryce, who is understood to have told friends she took the points, which relate to a speeding offence in 2003.

If Clarke is sacked and Huhne is forced to resign, that would leave Cameron trying to fill two senior positions at the same time.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Huhne must be replaced by another Liberal Democrat.

Cameron had been banking on a swift return to government for former chief secretary David Laws, who was last week suspended from the Commons for paying rent to his gay partner without informing the parliamentary authorities. But yesterday a Labour MP claimed the police were investigating Laws’ expenses claims, meaning a return to government – already unlikely after his suspension – would be impossible.

And health secretary Andrew Lansley was forced to respond to Nick Clegg’s opposition to the promotion of competition in the NHS.

Lansley, whose job is also under threat after the chaotic handling of his health reforms, insisted the proposal was “in the coalition agreement”.