Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted today that the Liberal Democrats had suffered a "real knock" as voters took out their anger on the party for the coalition's cuts.
In the Lib Dems' worst local elections showing since the 1980s, the party lost swathes of seats in former council strongholds in the north of England to Labour, while haemorrhaging support to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament.
With the party also braced for defeat when the result of the referendum on voting reform is announced tonight, there were calls from some activists for Mr Clegg to quit as leader.
A defiant Mr Clegg insisted however that he would carry on with the coalition, blaming the fear of a Thatcherite-style programme of cuts for the party's abysmal performance.
In contrast, the Conservatives - despite being the senior partner in coalition - saw their support largely hold up, with the party even managing to gain some council seats overall.
The biggest winners however were the SNP, who were triumphantly swept back to power in Holyrood with an unprecedented overall majority after four years of minority government.
A jubilant Alex Salmond promised that they would "in due course" use their victory to give the Scottish people a chance to vote for independence in a referendum.
Labour meanwhile enjoyed a night of mixed fortunes, which failed to answer the questions surrounding Ed Miliband's leadership.
While the party gained English council seats, it was not on the scale some analysts had been predicting.
It also picked up support in Wales, while agonisingly falling one seat short of an overall majority in the assembly, but in Scotland it suffered a hammering at the hands of the SNP.
Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who has been widely criticised for a lacklustre campaign, paid the price, announcing that he would be standing down in the autumn.
In England, with 191 council votes declared, Labour had gained 558 seats and taken control of 21 more councils while the Lib Dems lost 483 seats and six councils. The Tories gained 63 seats and four councils.
Mr Clegg - who endured the humiliation of seeing the Lib Dems lose control to Labour in his home patch of Sheffield - insisted they would "dust ourselves down" and carry on with the work of the coalition.
But after their Conservative partners enjoyed a relatively good night, he acknowledged that his party had borne the "brunt of the blame" for unpopular Government policies.
He said that in the north of England and in Scotland and Wales in particular, there were "real anxieties" that the coalition represented a return to the era of Margaret Thatcher.
"For many families in those parts of the country especially, there are also some very strong memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s and somehow a fear that that is what we are returning to," he said.
"What we need to do is to redouble our efforts to not only explain but show precisely one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats are in government is so that we don't go backwards as a country, but that we go forwards."
He added: "We have taken a real knock last night. But we need to get up, dust ourselves down and move on, because we have got a really big job to do."
Gary Long, leader of the Lib Dem group on Nottingham City Council where the party suffered a total wipeout, called on Mr Clegg to step down.
"I'm in favour of the coalition but I think he's run it very badly and in my view he should resign immediately," he said.
However, senior Lib Dem figures at Westminster rallied round their leader, making clear that there would be no change at the top of the party.
David Cameron also sought to bolster his coalition partners, praising their work in government.
He also promised there would be no celebrations by the Tories if - as expected - the referendum on adopting alternative vote (AV) for Westminster elections ended in a victory for the No camp.
"I am absolutely committed to make this coalition Government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term," Mr Cameron said.
"It is then that I believe the coalition and its parties will be judged by the electorate."
However after a bruising referendum campaign which pitched the Tories and Lib Dems against each other, former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown warned that relations between the two parties would not be the same again.
He bitterly criticised the Prime Minister for failing to distance himself from a largely Tory-funded No campaign which repeatedly targeted Mr Clegg, taking what the Lib Dems believed were difficult decisions in the interests of the coalition.
"If the Conservatives fund to a level of about 90% a No campaign whose primary task is to bring down their coalition partner... and then stand back and say: 'Nothing to do with me guv' - I don't put that in the box marked betrayal but I put it in the box marked bloody stupidity," he said.
"And the truth is there are consequences for that."
Mr Miliband, addressing Labour supporters in Gravesham, in Kent, where the party took control of the council from the Conservatives, said that voters had "withdrawn permission" from the Lib Dems to support the Conservatives.
He acknowledged however that Labour had more work to do to regain the trust of voters after their defeat in last year's general election.
"David Cameron and Nick Clegg must listen to the people. But of course we have further to go as a party. I am determined that we will people's voice in every part of Britain," he said.
Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes said the party would now assert its independence in Westminster by extracting concessions on issues like House of Lords reform and the expansion of private healthcare provision in the NHS.
Mr Hughes told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "Lords reform is a done deal - that was part of the coalition agreement.
"NHS reform is absolutely the area that is now in the front line. It is absolutely clear that what has been proposed in (Health Secretary) Andrew Lansley's Bill is not what was agreed in the coalition agreement and is not what our party members and supporters have agreed to.
"That will be changed and if it is not sufficiently changed it will not happen."
Mr Hughes dismissed suggestions that Mr Clegg's position might be challenged, insisting that the Lib Dem leader was "personally and politically as strong as when he joined the Government".
But Tory backbencher Mark Field said Mr Cameron's position had been "very much strengthened" by the results and the Prime Minister would not be in a mood to make "undue concessions" to Liberal Democrats following their "catastrophic" showing.
Mr Field told PM: "Clearly there will be an effort to try and shore up Nick Clegg's position, but the idea that there will be a whole lot of policy concessions allowing the Liberals to look good in the months to come is way, way short of the mark."
With results available from 235 councils, the state of parties is:
Party, Total, Change in Control, Councillors, Councillors change
C, 127, +6, 3,930 +91
Lab, 52, +23, 2,063 +681
LD, 9, -9, 874, -590
Green, 61, +20
R, 20, -3
Lib, 8, -1
BNP, 2, -9
Ind CHC, 1, -3
Ind, -2, 468, -182
UKIP, 4, -2
Boston, -1, 4, -14
Eng Dem, 2, +1
NOC, 47, -17