The Tories claimed early today that they were on course to evict Gordon Brown from power after they won a steady series of local election victories across England.
The party was picking up about 44 per cent support yesterday, enough to produce a comfortable overall Conservative majority at the next election. During the turmoil of John Major's Premiership in the mid-1990s, the Tories slumped to about a quarter of the vote in town hall elections. The tables have now turned, with the Tories the dominant party in local government.
In the 2004 council elections they won 37 per cent backing, although they went on to lose the general election the following year. Their support reached 40 per cent in 2005 and 2006 and the Tories control more town halls today than Labour did at its peak performance in 1996.
The Tories polled strongly in areas represented in Westminster by Labour. It took control of Southampton after eight gains – four from Labour, three from the Liberal Democrats and one from an Independent. Both the parliamentary seats in the city are held by Labour MPs.
The Tories picked up Harlow, which is represented at Westminster by Bill Rammell, the Education minister, with a majority of just 97 votes. It also tightened its grip on Basildon council.
There was also evidence that the Tories were rebuilding support in the North of England. They claimed victory in the Greater Manchester council of Bury after they gained three seats and Labour lost four. The parliamentary constituency of Bury North is a key Tory target at the next election. It is held by Labour's David Chaytor by 2,926 votes.
However, the patchy nature of their progress in the North was underlined by the state of parties in neighbouring Manchester, where they only have one councillor. They also made progress in Sunderland, where they made five gains, and picked up seats in Nuneaton and Bedworth.
George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, said: "When these councils were fought four years ago we only got 37 per cent, so naturally we want to make an advance on that. As Conservatives we want to demonstrate that we can govern locally. The change we can bring to local councils is also a change we can bring nationally."