But even before yesterday, those MPs found themselves experiencing something distinctly unpleasant. As they canvassed across the counties and around Newbury they came face-to-face with the wider electorate for the first time since the general election. They were prepared for grumbling and apathy, but what hit them was a wave of anger and contempt. Some of those who voted Conservative in 1992 in the belief that the recession would end the moment John Major walked back into Downing Street (he did, after all, claim precisely that) expressed a sense of betrayal. Many who were already fed up a year ago, but voted for the Tories out of fear of Labour, felt free (and safe) to give vent to their rage. Traditional supporters, still shocked by the disarray of last autumn, bewildered by Mr Major's European policy and depressed by the spectacle of apparently feeble leadership, said they would never vote or work for the party again.
Having underestimated the sentiment against them, the Tories must decide whether all they have to do is take their punishment with contrition and wait for the recovery to dull the memory and stimulate forgiveness, or whether something more is required. They can take comfort from the fact that Thursday's elections do not directly cause any crisis. The difference between managing a majority in the Commons of 21 or 19 is not really material. The Government has a small majority anyway and has to act accordingly. As far as losing control of a number of local authorities is concerned, while it may be bad for the morale of party activists, the power of local government has been substantially eroded. Above all, the Government knows that the fundamentals remain in its favour - the economic cycle, social demography, boundary changes and a hopelessly divided Opposition.
That is the argument for complacency. However, while Mr Major may draw consolation from it, he would be foolish to be swayed by it. If the Government remains as out-of-touch, as dingy and as directionless as it does now, it could yet pull off the surprise defeat of all time. Mr Major urgently needs to do something to freshen the Cabinet, too many of whose members have the tired and clapped-out look of men who have been in office for too long and can no longer remember what propelled them there in the first place. Unfair though it may be to make Norman Lamont the scapegoat for the recession, the message that MPs have conveyed from the doorsteps this week is that the Government will not restore credibility to its economic policy until a new and rather more impressive Chancellor has been found.
While Mr Lamont's departure is essential, and those of one or two others will help, direction can only be provided by the Prime Minister himself. He has indicated that what concerns him most is that the revival of the economy should be more securely rooted than the debt and import-driven boom of the late Eighties. He senses, probably correctly, that people are ready to make some medium-term sacrifices in consumption if that is the price of a better-balanced and more resilient economy. But he has yet to find the words to articulate and mobilise the endeavour, let alone shape the policies that might bring it to fruition.
As for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, it is clearer than ever that if only they could find a way of acting in combination they could also give this unpopular Government the relief from the burdens of office it so deserves. Although Labour did well enough in the county council elections to give it some encouragement, the Labour candidate's lost deposit in Newbury is a reminder of how bleak its chances really are. There is nothing about Newbury, a very typical small English town, which should render it so barren to Labour. Paddy Ashdown understands the problem, even if he does not have the solution. John Smith does not yet even seem to understand the problem.Reuse content