THE significance of these elections was signalled months ago: the fate of John Major was to hang on the outcome of these and the Euro elections five weeks later. Given that the Prime Minister's scalp was at stake, the prospect of the party spin doctors playing by the Queensberry rules was never more than slim.
To understand what happened we have to cast our minds back to when these councillors last contested their seats. May 1990 was for England and Wales the first poll tax election. Labour achieved its best results (outside London) for two decades, the Conservatives were massacred and the Liberal Democrats (then on 6 per cent in the opinion polls) were largely out of the game.
The result on Thursday was a disaster for the Conservatives, a triumph for the Liberal Democrats and a substantial relief for Labour.
Life was never going to be easy for Labour this May. Even if they had matched their success of four years ago they would have had little to show for it. The same was not true of London where, in 1990, they lost nearly 100 seats to the Conservatives. So, in their turn, Labour looked to gains in London to offset the difficulty in repeating their success outside it. They won handsomely the middle-class boroughs of Ealing, Enfield and Croydon and substantially consolidated their hold on Merton - where their majority rose from 1 to 23. The Liberal Democrats gave them a bloody nose in Lambeth and Labour comprehensively destroyed them in Tower Hamlets. Interestingly, Haringey, which for most of the Eighties the press treated as synonymous with loony leftism, saw Labour take 14 seats from the Tories. Outside the capital the picture was mixed, but there Labour were defending unprecedented successes and would have been well pleased with the overall result.
Outside of London the Conservatives had precious few seats to lose. So, not surprisingly, they tried to turn the media's attention towards the Midlands and elsewhere. They hoped that they could secure a few gains from Labour which would rekindle that 15-year-old saga 'Can Labour Ever Win Again?' But far from losing key Midlands councils, Labour increased their hold on them. And, stunningly, the overall Conservative performance was significantly worse than in 1990. They finished third in terms of seats, were completely marginalised in Scotland and held the fewest London boroughs for 30 years.
The Liberal Democrats were certain to improve their position this time. May 1990 was only 11 months after their humiliating performance in the last Euro elections. May 1994 followed the Newbury and Christchurch by-elections and the remarkable Liberal Democrat victories in the shire counties in 1993. Their opinion-poll rating is also three times greater than in 1990. But by any standard their achievement on Thursday was remarkable.
They challenged the Conservatives across the country, and Labour especially in the North as well as a number of urban areas. The debate continues about whether their growing support is wide but shallow. However, its effect is undisputed: the remorseless advance of Labour.
The reason is that the Liberal Democrats are tearing great chunks out of the Conservative vote while Labour's support remains broadly the same. The devastating effect of this can be seen in the table, commissioned by Channel 4 News, showing the sample of parliamentary seats where local election votes have been aggregated. It is Labour who are the principal political gainers. Erith & Crayford in south- east London is a seat Labour needs to win to become the largest single party in a 'hung' Commons and they win it easily. Both Davyhulme and Birmingham, Hall Green are seats which Labour needs in order to form a government and they take them both on the basis of Thursday's votes.
It is the Conservative nightmare - the 1983 general election, but in reverse. In 1983, the Conservatives received a smaller percentage share of the vote than in 1964. Yet, whilst they lost the 1964 election, in 1983 they had a majority of over 140 seats. The reason is simple: in 1983 the Conservatives slipped through the middle in many seats because the majority of votes against them were evenly divided between Labour and the Alliance parties. In 1994, the tables have been turned as Labour similarly benefits from the bruising battle between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
This is why so many Conservative MPs see themselves as being caught electorally between the Labour hammer and the Liberal Democrat anvil. A Channel 4 News survey of voting in 24 parliamentary seats last Thursday, gave Labour an overall majority of 101 in the House of Commons. The Conservatives were reduced to 161 seats, as the Liberal Democrats rose to 87.
Mr Major has called for discipline and unity over the next five weeks in order to salvage something for his party and himself from the 9 June elections to the European Parliament. But the odds were heavily stacked against him succeeding well before Thursday's debacle. The crisis for the Conservatives seems set to continue through the summer.
David Cowling is political analyst at ITN.Reuse content