Supporters of electoral reform turned their fire on Nick Clegg after the public voted overwhelmingly to keep the first-past-the-post system, killing off the prospect of change for a generation.
The no campaign scored a stunning victory with almost 70 per cent of the votes as the results of Thursday's referendum were announced last night. The gap was bigger than the 2:1 margin suggested by recent opinion polls.
The scale of the No camp's triumph compounded Mr Clegg's discomfort after the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy losses in the English council elections, particularly in the north. In contrast, David Cameron, pictured, defied the laws of political gravity as the Conservatives managed to make net gains in the town hall polls and were almost neck-and-neck with Labour in the share of the vote. A BBC projection of the national share put Labour on 37 per cent, the Tories on 35 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent and other parties on 13 per cent. A mixed set of results for Labour under its new leader Ed Miliband was overshadowed by a crushing double defeat for Mr Clegg.
As he bowed to pressure from Liberal Democrats to project the party's identity more clearly inside the Coalition, Mr Clegg was blamed for the heavy defeat in the referendum on the alternative vote. Yes campaigners said the higher than expected turnout of 41 per cent was people coming out to "kick Clegg".
One prominent figure in the pro-reform movement said: "The flaw in our campaign was that it was Nick Clegg's referendum. It's clear now that people were never going to give him what he wanted. The only thing that made a difference in the campaign was when the No camp put out a picture of Nick Clegg on its literature. We underestimated the unpopularity of the Lib Dems."
Clegg allies directed their fire at Labour, saying the only hope of defeating the power of the Conservatives lay in Labour and Liberal Democrats joining forces. They said Mr Miliband had "failed to deliver" his party, which was split down the middle on AV. Although some Liberal Democrats vowed to fight on for proportional representation, one yes campaigner conceded: "The chance of reform has gone for a generation."
Mr Clegg faced demands from a handful of councillors to resign. But there was no sign of any of the party's big beasts joining the call or challenging him for the leadership.
In the Bury ward of Ransbottom, the Labour and Tory candidates had the same number of votes, so they drew straws. The Labour candidate drew the longest one to win the seat – giving the party a council majority.