Supporters of electoral reform turned their fire on Nick Clegg yesterday after the public voted overwhelmingly to keep the first-past-the-post system, killing off the prospect of change for a generation.
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The No campaign was on course for a stunning victory by almost 70 to 30 per cent as the results of Thursday's historic referendum were announced last night. The gap was even larger than the 2-1 margin suggested by recent opinion polls.
The scale of the No camp's triumph compounded Mr Clegg's agony after the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy losses in the English council elections. In contrast, the Conservatives made surprise net gains. The BBC projected the national share of the vote as Labour on 37 per cent, the Conservatives on 35 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent and other parties on 13 per cent.
The most dramatic result of "Super Thursday" came in Scotland, where a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote and a poor performance by Labour allowed Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party to win the first overall majority since the Edinburgh parliament was set up in 1999. The SNP's spectacular victory could have far-reaching implications for the UK, as it will hold a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the Union during its five-year term.
A mixed set of results for Labour under its new leader, Ed Miliband, was overshadowed by a crushing double defeat for Mr Clegg.
As he bowed to pressure from Liberal Democrats to project the party's identity more clearly inside the Coalition, Mr Clegg was blamed for the heavy defeat in the referendum on the alternative vote (AV).
Yes campaigners said the higher than expected turnout of more than 40 per cent was due to people coming out to "kick Clegg".
One prominent figure in the pro-reform movement said: "The flaw in our campaign was that it was Nick Clegg's referendum. It's clear now that people were never going to give him what he wanted. The only thing that really made a difference in the campaign was when the No camp put out a picture of Nick Clegg on its literature. We underestimated the unpopularity of the Lib Dems."
Clegg allies directed their fire at Labour, saying the only hope of defeating the power and money of the Conservatives lay in Labour and Liberal Democrats joining forces.
They said Mr Miliband had "failed to deliver" his party, which was split on AV. Although some Liberal Democrats vowed to fight on for proportional representation, the No lobby declared it was dead for at least 20 years. One Yes campaigner conceded: "The chance of reform has now gone for a generation."
As the blame game intensified last night, allies of Mr Clegg said he could not be made the scapegoat for such a heavy defeat. "If it had been lost by a few points, you could have argued that he had made the difference," one aide said. "You can't blame a 70:30 result on one person. Perhaps people just didn't like AV."
Mr Clegg faced demands from a handful of councillors to resign. But there was no sign of any of the party's big beasts joining the call or challenging him for the leadership.
Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrats' former Treasury spokesman in the Lords, said: "We've taken the bullets the Tories dodge for Coalition policy. As we Lib Dems insisted at our conference, we must reorganise the banks, not the health service."
Mr Clegg said the AV result was "a bitter blow for all those people like me who believe in the need for political reform but the answer is clear."
Mr Miliband said: "I'm disappointed that we lost the AV referendum, but I think the people have spoken very clearly on this issue."
Mr Cameron dismissed speculation that the Tories might pull the plug on the Coalition and call an early general election. He praised the work of Liberal Democrat ministers.
The results could create conflicting pressures on Mr Cameron. Mr Clegg's more forceful approach to internal Coalition battles will be balanced by demands from Tory MPs, whom the Prime Minister will address on Wednesday, for Mr Cameron not to throw policy "sweeteners" to the Liberal Democrats such as an elected House of Lords.
Mark Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said: "The majority of the Conservative Party is not against reform of the House of Lords and our constitutional settlement, but this needs to be evolutionary not revolutionary. Nick Clegg should not be given free rein to go at our proven and tested constitution with a chainsaw."
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