Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives for his visit to the Harris City Academy in south London December 8, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
The two parties in Britain's governing coalition clashed on Monday over their plans for the economy as they tried to differentiate themselves in voters' eyes before a national election due next May.
Prime Minister David Cameron's right-leaning Conservatives accused the centre-left Liberal Democrats of "being all over the place" on the economy, while they accused him of pre-election panic. However, there is no suggestion the two parties, in coalition since 2010, will split before the election.
Under pressure from some of their own lawmakers to tack right, the Conservatives have been partially outflanked by the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and are seeking to fine-tune their policy message to try to win a majority.
That will be a tough task, with polls pointing to a 'hung parliament' in May in which no one party has enough seats to govern alone.
A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times put the Conservatives neck-and-neck with the main opposition Labour party on 32 percent. The Liberal Democrats had 6 percent and UKIP 17 percent.
The slump in the Liberal Democrats' poll ratings is due mainly to a perception among supporters that they compromised their principles by governing with the Conservatives.
With both parties anxious to reclaim their pre-coalition ideological clothes, the economy is an obvious battleground. The Conservatives favour spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit, while the Liberal Democrats favour tax rises as well.
"ALL OVER THE PLACE"
In an email to his lawmakers released on Monday, Cameron said: "The Liberal Democrats are all over the place, unable to decide whether they want to stick to the plan (of the coalition for spending cuts) or veer off it."
Senior Liberal Democrat minister Danny Alexander hit back, telling BBC radio: "I don't think we should be shrinking the state as an article of faith. I think we should have a state which is funded to do the things that matter."
Both parties are eager to take political credit for Britain's economic recovery, something opinion polls suggest only the Conservatives have achieved to any large measure.
Anxious not to fuel investors' doubts about the government's stability, Alexander said the coalition would "absolutely" hold together.
"What we're doing is something that should be totally unsurprising, which is two political parties with very different views ... setting out their views about the future," he said. "That does not in any way undermine our ability to work effectively together in this coalition."