The refusal by Humberside Police Authority to suspend the chief constable, David Westwood, has raised the stakes in the battle of wills with the home secretary to an unprecedented level.
David Blunkett's warning that he will be taking "the necessary legal steps" early next week can only mean one thing - that he will ask a judge to order the police authority to comply with the law. This has never happened before.
Mr Blunkett has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach to police reform
One former chief constable knows what it is like to bear the full force of the home secretary's wrath.
Paul Whitehouse headed the Sussex force when David Blunkett became home secretary in June 2001.
Within weeks, Mr Blunkett - in a move designed to send a strong signal to police chiefs - made it clear he expected Sussex Police Authority to remove Mr Whitehouse from office following a number of highly critical reports related to the fatal shooting of a man by firearms officers.
Mr Whitehouse resigned, after realising that he did not have the full support of his police authority.
On Friday he told BBC News Online : "The law has changed since 2001 and there is no doubt that Humberside Police Authority is breaking the law by refusing to suspend Mr Westwood.
"If they don't obey, frankly the whole system of governance collapses."
However, Mr Whitehouse believes there is another agenda at work here.
"The home secretary wants to extend his control. We have just about the most centralised government in Europe except in the area of policing, where there are 43 independent forces in England and Wales. This is a way of showing who's in charge."
The Westwood saga is a fascinating component of the carrot-and-stick approach being adopted by the home secretary to improving police performance.
Chief constables have only just been awarded substantial pay rises, following a Home Office report on police leadership last year which expressed concerns that too few talented officers were applying for top jobs.
But at the same time, a regime of tough performance indicators and a rigorous Police Standards Unit are increasing the pressure from Whitehall.
Mr Westwood was criticised in the Bichard report
Mr Blunkett also has little time for the current model of police authority which, he feels, lacks true democratic credentials.
The Westwood stand-off will only strengthen his conviction that a radical shake-up of the long-standing " tri-partite " relationship between home secretary, chief constable and police authority should be a priority of a Labour third term.