LONDON Strains in Britain's two-party coalition surfaced on Thursday as David Cameron's governing partner likened the prime minister's policies to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other "tyrants".
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the junior coalition partner the Liberal Democrats, made the comparison when criticising plans by Cameron's Conservatives to limit the power of the European Convention on Human Rights in Britain if re-elected next year.
Both parties trail the opposition Labour Party in the polls ahead of a national vote in May 2015 and are increasingly trying to distance themselves from each other in an attempt to make sure voters understand they stand for different things after four years in government together.
Clegg said he had been "blindsided" by comments from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that the Conservatives would lay out plans to "curtail" the role of the convention in Britain and to replace the legislation which enshrines it into British law.
"The Conservatives, extraordinarily enough, want to line up with Vladimir Putin and other sort of tyrants around the world by tearing up our long tradition of human rights," Clegg told Britain's LBC radio station on Thursday.
Some Conservatives want Britain to leave the convention altogether, arguing that it makes it too difficult for the country to deport foreign criminals.
Cameron on Tuesday dismissed Dominic Grieve, the government's top lawyer and someone who had cautioned against withdrawing from the convention, in a big government shake-up, a move seen as paving the way for a potential exit.
Clegg said the changes to Cameron's team had been about removing people with "reasonable internationalism".
"The headbangers have now won," he said, using a derogatory British expression to describe people with outlandish and extreme views. "You've now got a much more extreme view taking root in the heart of the Conservative Party."
His comments came as senior Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander wrote in a newspaper that his party now wanted to make changes to government steps to clamp down on housing welfare payments, a policy it had previously backed and agreed with Cameron's party.
Cameron's spokesman said the policy would not be changing and said the junior coalition partner had not raised the issue with the prime minister, describing it as something Cameron had "read about in the newspapers".
The two parties have also clashed over Europe in recent days. While the Liberal Democrats are strongly pro-European, Cameron's Conservatives are more divided on the issue, with some hardline Eurosceptics in the party arguing Britain should withdraw from the European Union.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's ties with Brussels ahead of a referendum on its membership of the 28-nation bloc in 2017, if he wins next year's election.
After Cameron promoted several Eurosceptics to top roles earlier this week, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the Cabinet was now Eurosceptic. That description prompted anger from the Liberal Democrats, who said it would not be a Eurosceptic cabinet as long as they remained part of it.
Coalition spats have fueled speculation that Cameron's Conservatives may try to govern alone in the months before next May's election to show voters their policies are distinct.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche)