In spite of the loss of its deposit in the Newbury parliamentary by-election, Labour also inflicted a humiliating defeat of its own as it emerged the overall victor in the battle for the county councils. It controls 14 counties, against the Liberal Democrats' three and the Tories' one. It is over what it all means for the future that the two winners seem to differ.
With Labour capturing 1,388 seats, the Conservatives 969, the Liberal Democrats 873 and others 268, the shires are Tory heartlands no more. 'People will have to talk about the Tory shire,' Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, said.
Since both the Newbury and county campaigns were fought principally on national issues - the recession, unemployment and VAT on fuel - the blow for the Prime Minister is that much more damning. His only consolation is that anti-Maastricht fringe candidates at Newbury only picked up a handful of votes. The intensity of the protest vote was shown not just by the stunning 28.4 per cent swing to Newbury's new Liberal Democrat MP, David Rendel, whose 22,055 majority over Julian Davidson, the Conservative, was almost double the 12,357 majority won by the former MP Judith Chaplin. In the county contests, the Liberal Democrat victory in Somerset was also thought theoretically achievable but difficult to pull off.
Few pundits had meanwhile contemplated that Conservative reigns in Surrey, with a former majority of 36, or Kent, Conservative for more than a century, would meet such bloody ends. The worst Conservative local election defeat since council reorganisation 20 years ago has produced 28 hung councils out of 47. But a number of councils with no overall control are already co-operating, with some rotating committee chairmanships. Over the past year, a Liberal Democrat/Labour arrangement has worked in Berkshire.
Advice from the Labour and Liberal Democrat high commands on how to settle down to governing is similar. Maximise political power while preserving political identity, the Labour leader, John Smith, said; promote policies which you put before the electorate and work to achieve them in whatever way is appropriate, Andrew Stunnell, political secretary of the Liberal Democrat Councillors Association, said.
In characteristic form, Mr Rendel described the Newbury result as 'a little bit more than we expected. I think in the end people who had been wavering all decided the same way - to deliver a strong message to the Government'.
But as Mr Smith agreed that Mr Rendel's victory was 'splendid', the two parties vyed over what their county successes meant for the future.
Mr Smith said: 'Labour gained a splendid victory across the country. That is the springboard for success.'
Mrs Beckett said: 'The fact is we are the only alternative government by any measure you care to take.'
There were isolated examples of parties 'standing aside' in the county council elections. Two Labour candidates effectively gave a free run to Liberal Democrat opponents in Berkshire, causing embarrassment at Walworth Road. For its part, Labour claims that in Durham the Conservatives failed to field candidates, for no good reason, in 19 seats.
Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour say their tactic of putting up candidates across the country has worked, and neither is prepared to contemplate any other policy, particularly in the next general election, even in 'hopeless' constituencies.
Both parties were firmly opposed yesterday to the notion that formal pre-election pacts were the key to delivering the votes needed to beat the Tories, locally or nationally.
Thereafter, the perceived implications of Thursday night's events differ. The Liberal Democrats see the results as significant 'building blocks' - the more voters see them in positions of power, all the better.
Labour appeared to view its considerable successes as presaging a 'one last heave' in the next election of staggering proportions.
Mrs Beckett said that if the council results were replicated in a general election, Labour would have a 100- seat majority. Mr Smith said: 'Those who think Labour cannot win the next election by itself are talking nonsense.' The danger will come if Labour believes it need do little more to bring such a, or any victory, about.
That statement may give a clue to which way Mr Smith may be leaning on the subject of electoral reform. But more importantly it may obscure the extraordinary nature of the Newbury result and the implications for Labour in the south of England. The Liberal Democrats were surprised at the inroads they made into the Conservative core vote in Newbury, but thought they had squeezed Labour as far as they could in the last election, to 6 per cent. But Steve Billcliffe, Labour's conscientious candidate, saw Mr Rendel eat into his remaining vote by a further 4 per cent.
Twenty years ago Labour achieved 10 times the 1.995 per cent of the vote accomplished by Mr Billcliffe. It was 27 years ago that Labour achieved anything approaching a 100 majority - the 97 in 1966.
Tim Payne, Mr Rendel's agent, said: 'It shows the extent to which the Labour Party has been destroyed in the south of England.' Despite significant gains, Labour has also only achieved control of one 'middle England' county, Northamptonshire.
Beyond the dazzle of victory, all of that makes reforms to make the party attractive to the prosperous regions more - not less - pressing.
THE NEWBURY RESULT
David Rendel (Lib Dem)37,590
Julian Davidson (C)15,535
Steve Billcliffe (Lab)1,151
Alan Sked (Anti-Maastricht, Anti-Federalist League)601
Andrew Bannon (Conservative Candidate)561
Stephen Martin (Commoners Party Movement)435
Lord David Sutch (Monster Raving Loony 30 Year Party)432
Jim Wallis (Green)
Robin Marlar (Referendum Party)338
John Browne (Conservative Party Rebel)267
Lindi St Clair (Corrective Party)170
William Board (Maastricht Referendum for Britain)84
Michael Grenville (Natural Law Party)60
Johnathan Day (People and Pensioners Party)49
Colin Palmer (21st Century Party)40
Mladen Grbin (Defence of Children's Humanity Bosnia)33
Alan Page (SDP)33
Anne Murphy (Communist Party of Great Britain)32
Michael Stone (Give the Royal Billions to Schools)21
Liberal Democrat majority: 22,055
Share of the vote: Lib Dem 65.06%; C 26.89%; Lab 1.99%; The remaining 16 candidates polled 6.05%. Swing C to Lib Dem: 28.4%
1992 general election: C 37,135, Lib Dem 24,778, Lab 3,962. C Majority 12,357.Reuse content