Ministers conceded early today that the Government had suffered a hammering at the polls after early council election returns suggested Labour's vote was sliding.
After the first three councils were declared, the Conservatives had gained 18 seats while Labour had lost 23. The Liberal Democrats had gained one.
In the new unitary authority of Central Bedfordhshire, the Conservatives gained control while Labour failed to win a seat. The Tories also strengthened their control of Lincolnshire County Council.
The early setbacks for the Government came amid signs that millions of voters had shunned the last big test of public opinion before the general election, suggesting the main political parties had been hit by a backlash over the expenses scandal.
Party officials agreed that turnout in yesterday's European and local council elections had fallen in most areas. They predicted last night that only about 30 per cent of electors would have cast a vote. The full results from councils will be announced today, with the European results declared on Sunday.
Turnout in the last European elections five years ago was 38 per cent. A lower figure this year could boost the prospects of smaller parties such as the Greens and the British National Party.
This year, campaigning has been dominated by the furore over MPs' expenses, with politicians reporting a "plague on all your houses" mood on the doorsteps. However, Labour is expected to be hit hardest by the near-universal anger among the electorate.
Areas with no local elections, including London and major cities, reported a particularly slow start to polling.
The UK Independence Party, which hopes to beat Labour in votes cast for the European Parliament, protested to the Electoral Commission after complaints from voters that they did not realise the party was on the ballot because of how the papers were folded.
Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, called for Michael Wills the Elections minister to resign and threatened to take legal action demanding a re-run of the elections in some areas.
In Derbyshire, until yesterday regarded as Labour's "safest" county council, only one issue was on the voters' minds – MPs' expenses. Labour may have held the council for 28 years but nobody was debating their track record on services at the polling stations – they were far more intent on discussing the "thieves and rogues" in Westminster.
"It is a bit like wanting to get a suntan and a tsunami has turned up and it is the only show in town. You try to get people back on the beaches but you can't," said Labour councillor Dave Wilcox. A loss of seven seats when the votes are counted today will mean the end of the party's overall control of the council. Yesterday its only hope appeared to be that all the main parties were being tarred with the same brush.
At Aston-on-Trent polling station, voters told The Independent they were disillusioned and frustrated with the political system. "I feel pretty much the same as everyone. They are all a bunch of crooks," said airline pilot James Flack, 33, who voted Conservative in the council elections and UKIP in the European ones. "At the end of the day if I was to defraud the tax man I would probably lose my job, my house and go to prison."
Keith Yates, 73, was convinced the Tories would capture Derbyshire: "We are looking at the mood of a nation. All the things that have happened over the last 18 months. It is diabolical how they have milked the system."