The Conservatives were spinning just a week ago that keeping their council losses to less than 1,000 seats would be a creditable performance. Even allowing for the dark arts of expectation management, it was beyond the dreams of the most optimistic Tories that they could make even modest gains.
Although many urban centres of northern England remain virtual no-go areas for the party, elsewhere its support appeared not to have been hit by the warnings of austerity. The party even had a clutch of council gains to celebrate. It took Harrogate from no overall control following a Liberal Democrat slump, captured North Lincolnshire from Labour and won the town hall in the previously hung Essex council of Tendring.
Tories were also cheered that they easily retained Trafford in Greater Manchester. They lost Gravesham to Labour, but they comfortably retained three other Kent councils: Dartford, Medway and Dover, all of which Ed Miliband's party had hoped to capture as proof of its recovery in the south.
Although the Conservatives were keen not to highlight their gains at the expense of their coalition partners, many Liberal Democrat seats fell into Tory hands. They evicted the Liberal Democrats from North Norfolk – the home patch of Norman Lamb, Mr Clegg's parliamentary aide – and Vale of White Horse in Oxfordshire.
The Tories' slow decline continued in Scotland, where they polled less than 13 per cent in elections to the Holyrood parliament. But there are signs of a recovery in Wales, where they came a clear second.
David Cameron said: "We fought a strong campaign explaining why we took difficult decisions to sort out the mess we inherited from Labour."