A BBC projection early today put Labour's share of the vote at 48 per cent, the Liberal Democrats at 23 per cent and the Conservatives hovering two points below its worst-ever previous figure of 27 per cent.
The Tories were bracing themselves for losses of more than 2,000 seats - more than three times as many as any party has lost before in a single local election night - and easily fulfilling the very worst-case fears of Conservative ministers.
As MPs began to compute the impact on their general election prospects of a disaster which dwarfed even the previous record electoral meltdown inflicted on the then Labour government in 1968, David Curry, the local government minister, sought to minimise the politicial damage. "The political market has discounted a bad result," he said.
A series of Cabinet ministers led by Mr Major himself are expected to couple a "business as usual" message today with a clear warning that the Prime Minister is ready to take on all comers in the event of any effort to destabilise his leadership. But the sheer scale of the losses is likely to trigger one of the most turbulent periods he has faced since coming to office in 1990. Their job will not be made easier if Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, fulfils firm market expectation by sanctioning an interest rate rise today.
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, pointed to the low turnout of 38 per cent, down eight points on last year, and argued Tory voters had stayed at home.
As a series of Tory bastions crumbled across the country, in one of the more resonant defeats of the night the commuter-belt stronghold of Royal Tunbridge Wells was finally toppled in a continuation of the Liberal Democrat advance last year.
And as Liberal Democrats seized control of Salisbury and the new unitary authority of the Isle of Wight it was clear that while Paddy Ashdown's party had lost some ground to Labour in parts of the North, fears that it would be squeezed by the Blair-led Labour Party in the South proved unfounded. Around midnight Mr Ashdown, confident Liberal Democrats would come second in terms of councils under their control, predicted a record number of more than 600 seats gained.
Neverthless the big sea change of the night was Labour's success in reaching into parts of the country it had not penetrated for a generation or more. Essex man turned decisively towards Tony Blair and Labour took control not only of Walsall, Portsmouth and Oldham councils but also gained, among a string of 35 councils, Dover, Exeter and well-heeled Wirral. It became the equal largest party in Trafford, the last Tory metropolitan stronghold.
Mr Blair, the Labour leader was restrained in his first reaction. Warning against complacency he said: "We don't take anything for granted. It may be a great result, but local elections are local elections and we have now got to work on through to the General Election, which is obviously the big and important test for us." He added that people had been "crying out for a sensible alternative to the Conservatives and now they've got one. We are taking seats from all political parties and in all parts of the country."
Mr Ashdown said: "It's a very good night for us. Those who have assumed that politics have returned to a two-party mould had better think again."
Bernard Zissman, Tory leader in Birmingham was one of 12 Tories to lose their seats. He said the results had nothing to do with voter confidence in Labour's ability to run councils. "People were voting against ...their unhappiness with the government." In a withering indictment of party disunity, the former party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler, defended Mr Major and blamed divisive MPs for the rout. He declared: "Unless we can address the unity issue, the outlook is a bleak outlook."
Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, had yesterday moved to pre-empt inevitable speculation that Tory MPs would try to force an immediate challenge to John Major, by formally declaring next week their support for an autumn leadership election. "I don't think there is any likelihood. There is no provision under our rules that there can be a challenge anyway. It is only permitted once a year, after the new session starts in November.''
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