Thursday's local elections outside London were never going to provide Labour with much comfort. But the party had undoubtedly hoped to avoid the unalloyed calamity that befell it.
Labour was defending what had hitherto been its worst local election performance for at least 40 years. Yet it still suffered heavy losses. By the time the last results were being declared yesterday afternoon, it found itself with over 300 fewer councillors and had incurred a net loss of nine councils. The BBC estimated that if the whole country had been voting last Thursday, the party would have won just 24 per cent of the vote, two points down on 2004 and a new low.
Moreover, the party's heartlands seem to have been particularly keen to give Labour a kicking. Compared with last year, the party's vote fell on average by five points in those wards where it had managed to win 45 per cent of the vote or more in 2007, twice the rate of loss it had to endure elsewhere. Such a pattern will do little to ease Labour MPs' concerns that the row about the abolition of the 10p tax rate has given rise to particular dismay for the party's core supporters.
While Labour floundered the Conservatives flourished. They won more than 250 extra council seats and made net gains of a dozen councils. Above all, at 44 per cent, their projected national vote was four points above last year's performance. The party not only pulled off a surprise south coast victory in Southampton, but also secured its top North of England targets, Bury and North Tyneside. More generally, compared with last year the party's vote rose on average by as much in the North as it did in the South.
This was so much more than modest progress. Rather it was the party's best local election performance since 1992. In recent weeks, opinion polls have been telling us that the Tories are now in a stronger position than at any time since Black Wednesday. That message has now been confirmed in the ballot box.
Indeed the party matched the kind of local election performances Labour achieved in the years immediately before Black Wednesday. As a result, while a Tory victory at the next general election is still far from inevitable, it can no longer be dismissed as inconceivable.
The Liberal Democrats, in contrast, profited little from Labour's misfortune. At 25 per cent, the party's estimated share of the national vote fell by 1 per cent for the fourth year in a row, thereby putting it in an even weaker position than it was under Sir Menzies Campbell last year. It could comfort itself with the thought that it was narrowly ahead of Labour in the projected national share for only the second time ever, but it was a reflection of Labour's dire performance not Liberal Democrat success.
Still, the party avoided any further erosion of its local government base. It made a net gain of one council, losing (temporarily at least) Liverpool but making notable gains in Burnley, Hull and Sheffield. It also made a small net gain of around 30 seats. Seats lost to the Conservatives were matched by gains from Labour. The party was also fortunate that its heaviest loss of votes compared with four years ago appears to have been concentrated in wards where it was already third. Nevertheless the Liberal Democrats have to face the reality of a revived Conservative Party nationally.
The crucial question the Conservatives must address is whether they can exploit the enhanced credibility Thursday's results have given them. Polling published by the BBC's local election results programme indicates that the foundations of its newly-won popularity may not be secure.
For example, recent adverse economic trends have clearly helped to tarnish Labour's reputation for economic management. Only 32 per cent say that they feel able to trust the party to run Britain's economy, down 16 points on last year. However, only 36 per cent say they trust the Conservatives, a drop of 10 points. Equally while only 27 per cent think Labour has a good team of leaders, barely any more, 31 per cent, say the same about the Conservatives.
Such figures suggest that while voting Conservative is now regarded as an acceptable way of expressing dissatisfaction with the Labour government, the public may still harbour doubts about the Tories' ability to provide a better alternative government. Unless those doubts are met, the public might yet be willing to return to Labour should better times return.
Gordon Brown's task will be to persuade us that better times are indeed around the corner. Yet Labour politicians seemed unable yesterday to give us much idea of how the Government will set about that task. It is a void that badly needs to be filled – and soon.
John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde UniversityReuse content