Sir Menzies Campbell, facing his first test of opinion from the voters since he became Liberal Democrat leader, quickly admitted that the party's performance had been mixed.
It won a key target as it ousted the Tories from control in Richmond-upon-Thames and consolidated its position in such northern authorities as Hull, Rochdale and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But in the South the Tory recovery under David Cameron showed signs of eating into Liberal Democrat support.
The party took heart from pushing Labour into third place, securing a 27 per cent share of the vote compared with Labour's 26 per cent. But it won 30 per cent in the 2004 local elections and, overall, the results show the party treading water. Although it ended the night controlling one more council, it made a net gain of just three councillors.
Given the disastrous publicity for the Government in the run-up to the elections, that will come as a severe disappointment to party strategists after four years of large gains. The Tories claimed that Liberal Democrat support was "flat-lining". Eric Pickles, their deputy chairman, said the party had been "substantial losers". In straight fights between Tories and Liberal Democrats the former had made 39 net gains, he said.
Sir Menzies said it had been an "election of consolidation". He said: "There is no doubt our results have been mixed but I am not in any way downhearted by these results. This wasn't a test for me, it was a test for the party after the difficulties of the earlier part of this year. I think we have come through this test."
Their biggest scalp was in Richmond, a former Liberal Democrat heartland that was won by the Conservatives four years ago. It returned to Liberal Democrat control after notching up 17 gains.
Nine gains in South Lakeland, where the party ousted the Tory MP Tim Collins in last year's general election, gave it control of the district council. It also took power in St Albans after winning two extra seats.
The Liberal Democrats also became the biggest party in eight other authorities, including Camden, Brent and Oxford.
Their biggest setback came in Islington, where they lost 12 seats and control of the council in the face of a Labour recovery. They were also ousted from power in Milton Keynes as Tory support picked up.
They were thrown into reverse in Winchester, where the local MP, Mark Oaten, was forced to resign from the front bench over a liaison with a rent boy.
And they suffered significant losses in several London boroughs including Sutton, Bromley and Kingston.
Signs of the Tories winning back Liberal Democrat supporters will alarm MPs in former Conservative seats - 10 of its Westminster seats would be lost if there is a swing to the Tories of just 4 per cent at the next general election.
At the last election, the Liberal Democrats won 62 seats to give them their biggest block of MPs since the 1920s. With the Tories mounting their six-month search for a new leader, they slipped out of the headlines. Doubts over their direction came to a head in December as Charles Kennedy mounted a failed attempt to hang on to his leadership.
Sir Menzies was elected shortly after the party captured the parliamentary constituency of Dunfermline and West Fife from Labour. That victory settled nerves in the party, and opinion poll ratings have held up.Reuse content