The Tories swept to victory in the local authority elections last night to give William Hague a much-needed boost in his attempts to fight back against Labour.
Tory celebrations were abruptly curtailed by the unexpected loss of the Romsey Westminster by-election seat to the Liberal Democrats, but even so the town hall results were a huge setback for Labour, and provided fresh evidence that the party's traditional supporters are becoming disenchanted with the Government.
With 150 0f the 152 councils declared the Tories had spectacularly beaten their target of gaining more than 450 seats by capturing 518, while Labour had lost 563 and the Liberal Democrats 18.
This will allow Mr Hague to claim that his party could yet defy the odds by making the next general election a closely-fought contest.
The Conservatives hailed the results as a much more accurate reflection of the nation's mood than the opinion polls, in which Labour still enjoys a commanding lead, and the Romsey by-election.
The Tories gained 16 councils including Solihull, Southend, Plymouth, West Oxfordshire, Calderdale, Torbay, Hyndburn, Stratford-on-Avon and Rossendale. But they lost overall control of Wokingham, which became a "hung" council.
Labour lost 14 councils, including Oldham to the Liberal Democrats despite running the council for 20 years - another sign that the party is losing ground in its strongholds.
The Lib Dems, who already control Sheffield and Liverpool, did better than expected last night, winning control of Cambridge. Labour also lost power in Hartlepool - the constituency of Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary - and in Bradford, Portsmouth, Chorley, Walsall and Worcester.
There was evidence that Labour was punished in the West Midlands amid concern over job losses at Rover's Longbridge plant. Labour lost 11 seats on Birmingham City Council and the Tories made eight gains. But there was relief in the Labour high command that the party retained the Longbridge ward.
A BBC survey suggested that Labour had captured only 29 per cent of the national vote, only one point up on its disastrous performance in last year's European Parliament elections and well short of the 40 per cent Tony Blair would need to secure a second term in the general election expected next year.
A Labour spokesman said the party's performance in the local elections had been hampered by a "very, very low turnout", which was estimated at about 30 per cent.
But the Conservatives could draw little encouragement from the results, he argued, pointing to Labour's success in holding on to Tory targets such as Trafford, Gloucester, Hastings and Exeter, and gaining Welwyn and Hatfield.
Labour accused Mr Hague of running a cynical campaign designed to ensure a low overall turnout but to mobilise traditional Tory supporters. But Tory MPs said the leader had struck a chord by raising issues such as public concern over asylum-seekers and the jail sentence imposed on Norfolk farmer Tony Martin.
Candidates campaigning under the Health Concern banner, in support of Kidderminster General Hospital's fight against downgrading, gained eight seats in Wyre Forest, giving them 19 of the council's 42 seats, the biggest single grouping.Reuse content