THE Conservatives would have "burned Scotland at the stake" if they had entered government last year on their own, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott, has claimed in an extraordinary attack on his party's coalition partners.
Amid signs that the tensions of next week's elections are stretching the Tory-Lib Dem pact to breaking point, Mr Scott uses an interview with The Scotsman today to argue Nick Clegg spared Scotland "the worst excesses of Thatcherism" by doing a deal and tempering Conservative policies last year.
"They had to ensure we didn't have a Tory government that burned Scotland at the stake, and this is potentially what could have happened," he says.
Mr Scott's comments are among the most provocative made by a senior Lib Dem figure against the Conservatives since the coalition was formed last May. It comes with the Scottish Lib Dems seeking to distance themselves further from the Tories as they seek to shore up their support ahead of next week's election, with the latest polls suggesting the party could win fewer seats than the Greens.
Pressing home Lib Dem policy gains in the coalition, such as the 1,000 increase in the income tax threshold hitting wage packets this month, Mr Scott says his party had taken the edge of Conservative policies in office.
"That wasn't in the Tory manifesto - they wanted to help millionaires with inheritance tax, not help low-paid people out of tax altogether," he says.
Mr Scott invites voters to "think how bad it would be" if Mr Clegg had not agreed terms with Mr Cameron last year.
He adds: "We all remember Thatcherism - the poll tax, Scotland being used as a guinea pig, mass unemployment."
He also claims that once Labour had made it clear they would not do a deal with the Lib Dems in the days after last year's general election, Mr Clegg had "no choice" but to go into government with Mr Cameron, in order to soften Conservative policies.
His comments mark a major shift in the Lib Dem strategy ahead of next week's election, as the party seeks to show voters there is clear water between it and the Conservatives.
Mr Scott repeats his admission that he felt "pretty uncomfortable" when the coalition pact was formed last year. He also says he had "always recognised" the potential damage it would do to his election chances this May.
His comments come with just over a week to go until the 5 May elections and with one poll at the weekend suggested the Lib Dems were scoring just 8 per cent on the constituency vote, down from 14 per cent at the last Scottish election in 2007.
The Conservatives last night hit back, contrasting Mr Scott's outspoken comments with the approach taken by Lib Dem ministers, such as Scottish MP Danny Alexander.
Conservative finance spokesman Derek Brownlee said: "It's a real shame the Scottish Lib Dems have not adopted the same constructive attitude as their Westminster colleagues - including Lib Dem MPs from Scotland - who have joined with the Conservatives to form a stable UK government.
"Because of this attitude, more and more Lib Dem voters are considering voting for Annabel and the Scottish Conservatives on the peach ballot paper."
Campaign chiefs of all the other parties say they are picking up support from disgruntled Lib Dem voters, with experts predicting the party could go down to just seven seats, from 16.
Mr Clegg has yet to appear north of the Border, but it is expected he will campaign in Scotland this week, with party chiefs denying they have told him to steer clear for the duration.
Tensions between the Conservatives and Lib Dems stepped up in London as well yesterday, amid reports that Tory ministers were excluding their Lib Dem counterparts from government discussions.
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It is also understood that Conservative ministers are no longer allowing back-bench Lib Dem MPs an early sight of statements and papers, as had been promised when the coalition was formed last year.
The reports come with coalition tensions already having risen as a result of the AV referendum, which also takes place on 5 May.
At the weekend. Energy Secretary Chris Huhne accused the No campaign had dredged up "downright lies", saying he was "shocked" at the behaviour of his coalition partners.
Mr Scott also uses the interview today to ramp up his attacks on Labour plans to create a new national police force, warning that it could create a "police state".
Speaking in Inverness yesterday, he added: "There are nine days to save local policing and stop police jobs being cut."
However, Stewart Maxwell, SNP candidate for Eastwood, said: "This is groundless scaremongering from the Lib Dems, who know that the SNP has delivered on police numbers, recruiting 1,000 extra officers and helping drive crime to a 32-year low.
"The SNP has also pledged to maintain these record numbers."