The Tories and Liberal Democrats were making steady gains early today as local election voters took their revenge on Tony Blair.
The results will come as a relief to David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell, who were fighting their first local elections as leaders of their parties.
The Conservatives were forecasting victory in the west London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, where they said they would overturn a Labour majority of 12. Greg Hands, the recently elected Tory MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, said the result showed his party was "back in play in the cities big time".
It also won back Shrewsbury and Atcham, once a Tory stronghold, from no overall control.
The Tories tightened their grip on Tamworth, where they won five seats from Labour. They now hold 21 of the 30 seats on the Staffordshire council, increasing their majority from two to 12.
They comfortably regained Worcester, held on to Brentwood, Essex, where they won six extra seats, and became the biggest party on Chester council, where they won five seats - three previously held by Labour and two by the Liberal Democrats. But they lost control of the Lincolnshire council of West Lindsey as the Liberal Democrats made gains.
The council elections were the first electoral test for Mr Cameron since he became Conservative leader five months ago. The party had been playing down expectations of success, pointing out they were already the largest party in local government, making it difficult to make major gains.
The Tories focused heavily on the environment during the campaign, adopting the slogan: "Vote blue, go green."
The Liberal Democrats said they were making gains from Labour in the south London borough of Lewisham and from the Tories in Richmond-upon-Thames in west London. They also said they would hold on to Newcastle, Sutton, Cambridge and Eastleigh, and seize control in South Lakeland.
The Liberal Democrats comfortably retained power in Watford, where they are also defending the mayoralty.
They came within one seat of gaining control of Rochdale, winning four seats from Labour. They now hold 30 of the 60 seats on the council.
The Liberal Democrats were anxious to demonstrate that they had bounced back from Charles Kennedy's resignation as party leader over his drink problems.
His successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, said his party had campaigned on local issues, but acknowledged that voters would inevitably use the elections as a "referendum" on the Government.Reuse content