Vince Cable, the business secretary, has attacked David Cameron for preparing to make "very unwise" comments in a speech he is due to deliver on the impact of mass immigration, which the Liberal Democrat minister warned "risked inflaming extremism".
In comments that threaten to provoke one of the biggest rifts in the coalition to date, Cable hit back after the prime minister's speech was released ahead of its delivery.
In his most outspoken speech on immigration since becoming prime minister, Cameron will warn that immigrants unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate have created a "kind of discomfort and disjointedness" that has disrupted communities across Britain.
He will blame Labour for allowing immigration to become "too high" and adopting an approach that enabled the British National party (BNP) to flourish, and he will vow to cut immigration into the UK to "tens of thousands".
The Liberal Democrats had already distanced themselves from Cameron's language, saying that deputy prime minister Nick Clegg had "noted rather than approved" the speech when he saw it.
But Cable made clear his distaste for the tenor of prime minister's speech, suggesting that Cameron was electioneering ahead of polls on 5 May and was about to make "very unwise" comments.
Cable told the BBC: "I do understand there is an election coming but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming extremism to which he and I are both strongly opposed."
Cable, who has spoken out before of the economic dangers of a cap on immigration, added that reducing net immigration down to tens of thousands a year was Conservative party policy and not coalition policy.
"Much of the remaining immigration from outside the EU is crucial to British recovery and growth. That is why the cabinet collectively agreed to support British business and British universities
by exempting overseas students and essential staff from the cap on non-EU immigration."
The warning by one of the most senior Liberal Democrats in government came on the day that the BNP accused the prime minister of poaching one of their own policies in the run-up to next month's local and devolved elections.
The UK Independence party (Ukip) said the prime minister's comments were an acknowledgment that "mass immigration has caused division within society".
Cameron will open his speech in Hampshire, by saying immigration is a hugely emotive subject that must be handled with sensitivity.
But he will then say Labour presided over the "largest influx" of immigration in British history, which saw 2.2 million more people settling in Britain between 1997 and 2009 than leaving to live abroad.
He will say this has placed serious pressure on schools, housing and the NHS, and has also created social pressures.
"Real communities are bound by common experiences forged by friendship and conversation, knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time," he will tell his audience.
"So real integration takes time. That's why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
"This has been the experience for many people in our country, and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it."
The prime minister will accuse Labour of helping to stoke an uncertain climate over immigration. He believes Labour inflamed the issue by accusing critics of racism while at the same time pandering to the hard right.
He will say: "I believe the role of politicians is to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.
"The last government, in contrast, actually helped to inflame the debate. On the one hand, there were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist.
"On the other, there were ministers hell-bent on burnishing their hardline credentials by talking tough but doing nothing to bring the numbers down.
"This had damaging consequences in terms of controlling immigration and in terms of public debate. It created the space for extremist parties to flourish, as they could tell people that mainstream politicians weren't listening to their concerns or doing anything about them."
Speaking prior to Cameron's speech, the immigration minister, Damian Green, insisted the prime minister's comments were not "anti-immigration", but that Britain could only benefit from immigration under a more "selective" policy.
Green told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the pace of immigration could lead to friction because community ties grow over time. "If they're changed too fast then that's when you get the tensions," he said.
"The contribution immigration policy can make and should make to this country is that we are open for business, we do want not just our fair share, but more than our fair share of the brightest and the best.
Green pointed out that the immigration limit on work visas was in the coalition agreement. "This is an item that people really care about and, if mainstream politicians don't talk about it, we leave the field open to the extremists," he added.
Tom Brake, the Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, said that while the issue was "very emotive", not least in the middle of an election campaign, it should be something that people were free to debate.
Speaking before Cable's intervention, Brake said Cameron's speech "clearly recognised" the benefits of immigration, before adding that it was important to listen to the voices of business and universities.
But Cameron's speech was seized on by the far right British National party, which accused the prime minister of hiving off its manifesto.
The BNP spokesman, Simon Darby, told Today: "It's cynical opportunism, isn't it? It's almost like a ceremonial adoption of our policy ... he knows what ordinary British people are thinking. He completely ignores that until two weeks before a major poll, and then all of a sudden starts pressing a few buttons to try and make people believe he's actually doing something about immigration.
"It's a farce, it's a con, and if we had copyright on our manifesto we'd have our lawyers round his office within hours."
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, said he welcomed the fact that Cameron had acknowledged that "mass immigration has caused division within society".
But he added: "Sadly, there isn't much he can do about it because the elephant in the room is the European Union, and we have a total open border with all of them. We cannot have our own immigration policy and be part of the European Union."
No 10 insisted that the speech did not mark a return to the era of the former Tory leader William Hague, who used the issue as part of a "core votes" strategy.
On the eve of the 2001 election, Hague warned that Britain was in danger of turning into a "foreign land".
Cameron will say Britain has benefited from immigration, telling his audience: "Go into any hospital and you'll find people from Uganda, India and Pakistan who are caring for our sick and vulnerable. Go into schools and universities and you'll find teachers from all over the world, inspiring our young people."
But the prime minister will use his speech to challenge those who say:
• Immigration cannot be controlled because Britain is a member of the EU. He will say future EU member states will be subject to tougher transitional controls and the UK can address immigration from outside the EU through the cap on non-EU immigration.
• Immigration can be controlled – but to do so would inflict serious damage on the economy. Cameron will say the government is thinking "incredibly carefully" about which workers should come.
But he will make clear that immigration cannot be controlled until Britain's welfare system is reformed.
"Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency," he will say. "That's another powerful reason why this government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for generations, making sure that work will always pay and ending the option of living a life on the dole when a life in work is possible."
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