The Liberal Democrats have begun examining the failure of their vaunted "decapitation strategy" to deliver the Tory scalps that the party had predicted.
Charles Kennedy appeared on the steps of his party's London headquarters and declared that he was delighted that the party had gained its best election return since 1923, making big inroads into Labour's urban heartlands. The party gained 62 MPs, with a string of wins at Labour's expense, including in Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds.
But overall the party did not make inroads into Tory territory, failing to capture targets such as Surrey South West, which was vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats because of the retirement of Virginia Bottomley.
Privately there was concern that the party did not take the promised scalps of Michael Howard, Theresa May, Oliver Letwin or David Davis on election night - and lost a clutch of their own seats to a Tory challenge.
The Liberal Democrat final tally of 62 MPs - up 10 on the last general election - fell short of the 70 plus the party had been privately expecting.
The gains were due in part to the mobilisation of the student vote which turned out in force to back the Liberal Democrats over their plans to scrap university tuition fees.
The party also capitalised on widespread opposition to the war in Iraq, taking Hornsey and Wood Green from the former Labour minister Barbara Roche, who voted for the war.
There was talk yesterday that the campaign had painted itself into a political corner, to the left of Labour, by highlighting tax rises for the rich and opposition to the Iraq war while failing to stress its civil liberties and personal freedom agenda.
Some feared that the party's opposition to Iraq and plans to increase local taxes for a quarter of people had alienated floating Tory voters.
"This wasn't a strategy, it was a short-term tactic, which could be a big problem at future elections when the issue of Tony Blair's popularity is not an issue," said a Liberal Democrat source.
Mr Kennedy said that he was looking forward to welcoming a "whole shoal" of new MPs in the Commons. "This is the very best result in our cause, our philosophical and political cause, we have had for many, many generations," he said. "So I think I have reasons to be optimistic."
He is expected to assert his authority with a swift reshuffle and a policy review. He is also expected to revise the rules that give the party conference the power to make policy, in an echo of Tony Blair's move to water down the power of the Labour party conference.
During the campaign the Liberal Democrat leader was forced to defend policies relaxing the laws on pornography and decriminalising the use of cannabis. Other policies that drew flak included the Liberal Democrat plans to give prison inmates the right to vote and to extend animal rights legislation to goldfish.
"The conference has got to assist the leader, not shackle him to fringe policies," said one senior Liberal Democrat source.
Some in the party were critical that the campaign management ran an inflexible campaign that did not respond to events or make the most of Mr Kennedy's national popularity by forcing him to stick to a rigid schedule of local visits.
There were signs that the party may have also suffered over its policy of boosting taxes for those earning more than £100,000.
The party suffered devastating losses across the country to the Tories, losing five seats, including Devon West, Newbury, Ludlow and Guildford.
In several seats in London and the South-east the Liberal Democrats saw the Conservatives eat into their majorities.
In the suburban London seat of Kingston and Surbiton, Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat local income tax spokesman, saw his majority almost halved.
Gains such as Westmorland & Lonsdale and Taunton from the Tories were welcome to the Liberal Democrats, and the win in Solihull was a unexpected boost, the result of shrewd local campaigning. Lorely Burt achieved a 13.9 per cent swing, overturning a Tory majority of 9,407 to unseat John Taylor,
Lord Razzall, the party's campaign chief, denied he had overstated the case when he claimed - only 24 hours before the polls opened - that the party's "decapitation strategy" against top Tories was on track. "What obviously happened was people wanted to vote against the Government and had a well-known Tory MP," he said.
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