By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) - The junior partner in Britain's two-party coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, on Sunday accused Prime Minister David Cameron of planning "devastating" spending cuts, their latest attempt to differentiate themselves before next year's election.
Vince Cable, an outspoken Liberal Democrat minister for business, said Cameron's Conservatives, if re-elected alone, would push through spending cuts to reduce the country's deficit that would drastically reduce the police budget and mean Britain's armed forces would become "largely ceremonial".
"We would be almost halving the spending of local government in areas such as social care," said Cable.
"It would be devastating and it would be ideologically driven and I would be very strongly opposed to it," Cable told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
Official forecasts show state spending could fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under Conservative plans to eliminate the budget deficit by 2018/19 by cutting spending without raising taxes.
The Liberal Democrats back tax rises too.
Cable's broadside is part of a strategy to disassociate the center party from the Conservatives before a national election in May next year to try to assuage supporters who feel the party betrayed its principles by going into government with the right-leaning Conservatives.
Although the strategy appears to be stepping up a gear there is no suggestion that the two parties, in coalition since 2010, will split before the election.
Cable, a possible contender for his party's leadership if it became vacant, cast the Liberal Democrats as a restraining influence on the Conservatives in government who had successfully curbed their more extreme plans.
"We've kept the Tories (Conservatives) on quite a tight leash," he said. "But now they’re being let off the leash and confronting the possibility of majority government, we're getting into all kind of extremes."
Liberal Democrat support has collapsed since 2010 when the party won 23 percent of the vote, but it still hopes it can win enough seats next year to form another coalition with either the Conservatives or the left-leaning Labour party.
Next year's election is shaping up to be one of the closest in modern British history, something the Liberal Democrats believe is in their favor.
A YouGov opinion poll for The Sunday Times had the Conservatives and Labour tied on 32 percent support with the Liberal Democrats trailing on just 7 percent behind the UK Independence Party on 16 percent.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)