Conservatives contemplate the divorce card

By staff

Conservative strategists have reportedly begun planning for the premature collapse of the coalition.

A range of scenarios are being considered by senior Tories as they envisage the potential departure of the Liberal Democrats from government up to a year before the next general election, the Times newspaper reported.

Such a move has been discussed by malcontent Conservative backbenchers for several months. Talk of a pre-election divorce increased dramatically after the final collapse of the Tories' much-desired boundary changes in January, at the hands of Nick Clegg.

One possibility being considered is business secretary Vince Cable becoming an interim Lib Dem leader.

Under this scenario the Lib Dems would effectively drop down to a 'confidence and supply' arrangement, leaving government after the 2014 Budget and giving them enough time to position themselves midway between the Tories and Labour.

It is not clear from the Times' report whether the story originated from Conservative or Lib Dem quarters.

But amid rising tensions over the EU referendum coalition relations are in a decline which could be accelerated further by the spending review tensions now enveloping Whitehall.

Ministers have put forward just £2.5 billion of the £11.5 billion of spending cuts sought by chancellor George Osborne, according to the Financial Times.

Cable is leading the fight against further cuts to the welfare budget, but the Treasury also faces opposition from potential Conservative leadership challengers including defence secretary Philip Hammond and environment secretary Owen Paterson.

One minister told the newspaper: "The low-hanging fruit has gone, it is very difficult now to find these sorts of cuts."

The coalition is struggling to find savings as it puts forward spending plans for 2015/6, after the Lib Dems and Tories agreed to commit to joint spending plans for a period of around ten months after the next election.

Their one-year spending review will be completed by the end of June this year.