DAVID Cameron lacks “leadership and decisiveness”, a prominent Conservative back-bench MP warned yesterday, as the party prepared to count the cost of a bruising verdict from voters in the English local government elections.
The Tories and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are expected to lose hundreds of seats as the bulk of the results are declared today, following a campaign which was dominated by the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
Tory MP Zac Goldsmith said voters were turned off by Mr Cameron’s “nudge-nudge wink-wink” approach to issues such as the proposed third runway at Heathrow, and warned that the impact of his promise of an EU referendum was muted, because some did not believe it would happen.
His intervention came as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg voiced concerns that Mr Cameron’s shift to the right – in order to counter the rise of Ukip – was hindering the business of government.
Nigel Farage’s party is expected to scoop more than 100 seats, and Tory fears that Ukip will eat into their vote have led to an increasingly bitter war of words.
Richmond MP Mr Goldsmith said the Tories should learn from Mr Farage rather than attacking him.
“I don’t think people on the streets are clear enough about what Cameron stands for – and that’s a problem in politics,” he said. “You need to have a clear sense of direction and that cannot involve a lot of U-turns or nudge-nudge, wink-wink, which is effectively what our airports policy is.
“Even critics respect leadership and decisiveness, and I do think we are lacking in that up to a point.”
Ukip is fielding more than 1,700 candidates in the polls, only just behind Lib Dems.
Mr Clegg had admitted that his party could finish fourth behind Ukip when the dust settles after today’s count.
He warned in an interview yesterday that Ukip’s success was pulling Mr Cameron away from the centre ground and making day-to-day progress in the coalition government more difficult.
The Liberal Democrat leader has vowed to “dig in my heels and make sure the centre of gravity of the government as a whole does not get pulled rightwards, due to the internal dynamics of the Conservative Party”.
He admitted that Mr Cameron’s positioning “makes it more complex to make progress in areas where initially we thought it would easy to make progress”, disclosing he has recently had to spend more time to secure agreements on the green agenda in government than on any other issue.
In South Shields, voters were also l casting their votes to return an MP in a by-election triggered by former foreign secretary David Miliband’s decision to step down to become head of the International Rescue Committee in New York.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said he was “certain we can overcome our country’s problems”.
He added: “The choice is between a one-nation Labour Party that knows we rebuild Britain by standing up for the many, and a Conservative-led government that only stands up for the few.”
Bookmakers William Hill and Ladbrokes were both last night predicting that Ukip will return in excess of 100 seats.
Votes are also being held in mayoral elections in Doncaster, where incumbent Peter Davies is fighting for re-election as an independent, and North Tyneside.
No elections are taking place in London, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
The majority of council results are expected today between 11am and 6:30pm, although six councils – Lincolnshire, Dorset, Somerset, Essex, Gloucestershire and Hampshire – were due to declare their results in the early hours today.