David Cameron's first major electoral test as Tory leader was hailed yesterday as an "important staging post" in the party's bid to defeat Labour at the next general election.
Mr Cameron's decision to indulge in high-profile electioneering, such as travelling up a Norwegian glacier to highlight global warming, appeared to be fully justified yesterday when the Tories won more than 300 seats.
The Conservative leader had been criticised for being filmed on a dog sled on the remote island of Svalbard after he urged people to "vote blue to go green".
However, the Tories beat Labour into third place with a 40 per cent share of the poll, and had their best haul of seats for 14 years. Some of Tony Blair's senior ministers privately said yesterday the Tories had secured momentum that needed to be checked by a change of leadership to Gordon Brown.
Mr Cameron failed to make a breakthrough in the northern cities of Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester but, yesterday, he went on a flying visit Chorley, Lancashire, to thank workers for their help in taking Conservative control of the local council.
Mr Cameron said: "There's plenty more to do, and plenty more change to be made and work to be done, but I think this is a very important step forward."
He added: "I think that we have shown right across the board that, where Labour are collapsing, we are building.
"Overall now I think we've won net an extra 12 councils. We've got gains, in terms of extra councillors, of almost 250 and I think that's above most people's expectations. I'm not claiming this is going to easy from here on. Of course it isn't. We've got a lot of hard work to do, not least in places like Manchester and Newcastle, as you say.
"But I think this shows the Conservative Party is broadening its appeal, that it's attracting new voters, and I think we see a Labour Party that is in some sort of serious meltdown, with people coming straight from Labour to the Conservatives."
The failure to make headway in the north of England was a disappointment, admitted senior Tory strategists.
"I'm not hiding it away. In a night of triumph there were three disappointments," said Eric Pickles, Conservative deputy chairman. "But a 40 per cent share of the poll means we are truly back in business - 40 per cent is magic.
"The special magic that David Cameron brought to this campaign meant that a number of people reconnected with the Conservative Party."
In London, the Conservatives redrew the political map. Hammersmith and Fulham went blue for the first time since 1968 - when David Cameron was aged one - overturning a 12-seat Labour majority. And, in an extraordinary turnaround, the Tories also took the supposedly rock-solid Labour borough of Ealing, turning a 31-seat deficit into an eight-seat lead, in a seat seen as a "bellwether" constituency for the next election.
Labour also lost Camden, which it had held for 35 years. The borough went to no overall control, with the Liberal Democrats as the largest party.
Brent also went to no overall control as Labour lost 13 seats. The Tories gained boroughs they had targeted including Bexley, where they took 23 seats from Labour, and Croydon where they now have 42 councillors to Labour's 27.
The Tory chairman Francis Maude said the result was "at the top end" of predictions, adding: "We are continuing to build our support while Labour's melts away. David Cameron's message of change, optimism and hope is in tune with what Britain wants today."
The Conservative gains included Shrewsbury & Atcham, Bassetlaw and Mole Valley. The party's win in Crawley stripped Labour of control for the first time since the early 1970s.
But in St Albans, Hertfordshire, the Tories lost a seat to the Liberal Democrats on the length of a pencil. After three recounts in Wheathampstead ward, each had 1,132 votes, and the seat was won by the party that picked the longest pencil from a person's hand. Among the councils the Conservative Party held were Tamworth in Staffordshire - where it gained five seats from Labour - and Brentwood in Essex, where it gained six seats from the Liberal Democrats.Reuse content