A Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister has accused the Conservatives of planning deep spending cuts after the 2015 election to shrink the state for ideological reasons.
Danny Alexander, the Treasury Chief Secretary, launched the attack as he tried to reassure Lib Dem activists that his party is not "lurching to the right" even though Nick Clegg is backing more cuts after the election.
Writing on The Independent's website, Mr Alexander hit back at criticism from the Social Liberal Forum, the party's main left of centre pressure group, which fears that endorsing more "Tory cuts" would rob the Lib Dems of their separate identity. He insisted: "This is not binding Liberal Democrat and Conservatives into the same long term fiscal policy. It is about finishing the job that we started in 2010….It is emphatically not about an ideological commitment to a smaller state."
The minister, who enjoys a close working relationship with George Osborne, said the Lib Dems believed that once the annual deficit has been eliminated, the remaining national debt should also be reduced. But he parted company with the Chancellor's strategy by saying: "Some Conservatives are ideologically wedded to continuous cuts as the route to a smaller state - they see endless budget surpluses funded only by ever more spending cuts as the means to that end. Indeed they have hinted that they think the remainder of the deficit can be cleared through public spending cuts alone.
"I do not agree with that at all. Tax rises on the wealthy will be needed to ensure that the burden is shared fairly….. We will need to continue to be willing to ask those who enjoy the fruits of the recovery the most, to make a greater contribution through the tax system."
Mr Alexander said further spending reductions are "necessary as a means to an end, not an end in themselves." He added: "Endlessly shrinking the state would be a diversion from our plan, and we won't sign up to it. Getting our debt down and fairer taxes to deliver the investment and public services we need is the right mix to secure Britain's long term prosperity. It is the responsibility of Lib Dems to anchor British politics in the centre ground - economic responsibility matched with social fairness. That is why when the serious work of dealing with the deficit is done, we will not support a fiscal lurch to left or right."
The activists' fears are believed to be shared by Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary. He accepts the need to pencil in cuts for the 2015-16 financial year because it begins a month before the election. But he does not want the Lib Dems to sign up to Treasury plans to shave billions off departmental budgets in the following two years.
A commitment to further cuts by the Lib Dems could make it harder for them to form a coalition with Labour if the 2015 election ends in another hung parliament. Mr Clegg insists he will be "equidistant" between the two main parties and would talk first to the one which won the most seats and votes.