The Liberal Democrats are braced for the loss of hundreds of town hall seats on Thursday as voters take revenge for their decision to go into government with the Conservatives, party sources acknowledged yesterday.
They fear they could lose control of several major councils, including Nick Clegg's home city of Sheffield, in the biggest test of public opinion since the Coalition's creation almost a year ago.
Among other Lib Dem authorities that could fall are Bristol, Portsmouth, Hull, Newcastle, Stockport and Chesterfield, threatening the party with its worst local election performance for more than 20 years.
The Tories are also prepared for the loss of up to 1,100 seats, because they are defending councils fought on a previous high-water mark four years ago when they took advantage of Tony Blair's unpopularity.
Labour is aiming to make 600 gains, although some analysts claim the party could pick up twice that number as they regain the backing of previous supporters who had defected to the Lib Dems. But the main focus will be on Mr Clegg's party, which is defending 1,800 seats, nearly half of its councillor base. Its problems are reflected by the fact that it is fielding four per cent fewer candidates than in the same seats in 2007.
The party has performed more strongly in local elections than its opinion poll ratings imply, but Lib Dem sources admit they expect to lose one-quarter of the seats they are defending, or some 450 councillors. One said: "There's no denying that we're going to take a hit – we will struggle."
Even if the party wins 16 per cent support – five points higher than its average national poll performance – that would still be its worst showing since shortly after its creation in 1988.
Although the Tories are the main challengers in three-quarters of the Lib Dem seats, Labour is expected to make the most eye-catching gains.
One of its top targets is Sheffield, where the Lib Dems run a minority administration – Labour needs to make just five gains for overall control.
Ed Miliband's party is also attempting to win back two previous strongholds – Newcastle, where it needs to make six gains to take overall control of the city council, and Hull, where it has to make seven gains. Labour also has a fighting chance of retaking Chesterfield, where it needs to make 13 gains from the Lib Dems.
Meanwhile the party is under attack from its Tory coalition partners in St Albans, Winchester and Lewes.
Many Lib Dem incumbents are inevitably fighting highly parochial campaigns, portraying themselves as powerless to resist the cuts on council budgets being imposed by central Government.
The Liberal Democrats run 23 councils after years of building up their local government base. Losing control of several of these, as well as hundreds of councillors, would have a damaging knock-on effect on the party activist base vital for the next general election.
Lib Dem aides insist the party will begin to recover support within the next year and point to several councils – including Ashfield in Notts, South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset – where they believe they can make gains next week. They also hope to raise morale by performing strongly in the parliamentary by-election being contested on Thursday in Leicester South, following the resignation of its Labour MP to stand as the city's mayor.
While Labour will certainly emerge as the main winner in the town hall contests, it needs to demonstrate revival in all parts of the country to prove it is recovering under Mr Miliband. It will want to regain Wolverhampton and North Warwickshire, and to perform strongly in Birmingham (currently run by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition) to show it is reviving in the West Midlands.
The importance of the East Midlands battleground will be demonstrated today by a visit by Mr Miliband to the region. He will attempt to win over disillusioned Liberal Democrats by accusing Mr Clegg of betraying them by acting as the junior partner in a Tory-led administration. Such councils as Bristol, Dover, Gravesham, Harlow, Norwich, Crawley and Ipswich are also in Labour's sights to demonstrate it is capable of improving on recent dismal showings in the south and East Anglia. Labour is fielding more candidates in previously unpromising parts of the country, contesting 65 per cent of seats in the South-east, compared with less than half four years ago.
The Tories privately predict they could lose up to 1,100 seats, and control of 35 of the 150 authorities they currently run, arguing that governing parties always struggle to energise their supporters during mid-term elections. Almost 9,500 English council seats will be contested this week, the largest number in the electoral cycle, with the Tories defending 5,024, Labour 1,614 and the Lib Dems 1,862.