DAVID Cameron was under increasing pressure from within his own party tonight, after the Conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat in English local elections, losing hundreds of seats after a huge surge in support for the UK Independence Party.
The Prime Minister saw his party lose more than a quarter of its seats in the English council vote, with coalition partners the Liberal Democrats also suffering massive losses.
Overall, Ukip took 25 per cent of the vote in those council areas in which it stood – its highest share of the vote in a major election and one leader Nigel Farage insisted constituted “a real sea-change in British politics”.
Labour gained 268 councillors and took control of two councils while the Conservatives lost 340 councillors and the control of ten councils, including Mr Cameron’s home county of Oxfordshire, with Labour even taking a seat in his Witney constituency.
The Lib Dems lost 124 seats while Ukip took 147 seats – a dramatic increase from the eight they held before Thursday’s vote.
Last night, a source in the Conservative Party said the result was “very bad”, describing the party’s strategy of attacking Ukip as “a complete failure”.
But, according to one projection, the result would have handed Labour a majority of just four in the Commons if replicated at a general election. The tone of the results was set by the South Shields by-election in the north-east of England where former foreign secretary David Miliband had resigned his seat.
Labour held on but Ukip came a strong second with the Tories pushed into third place. The Lib Dems came seventh behind the BNP, an independent and the Independent Socialist Party.
Ukip’s dramatic gains came despite stinging attacks from senior Tories including Cabinet minister Ken Clarke, who described the party as “clowns” with no positive policies.
One Tory insider said: “This was very bad. The fact Labour have not done very well either means that it is not fatal for Cameron but it has weakened his position and has opened the possibility of a summer challenge.
“The strategy of calling Ukip ‘clowns’ was a complete failure, it just increased their support.”
He added: “We cannot just keep on insulting our core vote over issues like gay marriage and then expect them not to desert us.”
Defeated Tory councillors also lined up to attack the leadership.
One, Alexis McAvoy, who lost her seat in Hampshire to Ukip, hit out at Mr Cameron, saying: “I don’t believe a word he says.”
Mid-Norfolk constituency chairman John Rogers, who also lost his seat to Ukip, said: “I blame the party and I don’t mind you quoting me because that’s fair. If they expel me, I don’t care.”
Local party associations have seen mass departures over issues such as gay marriage and there are renewed suggestions that Windsor MP Adam Afriyie could run as a “stalking horse” candidate in a leadership challenge against Mr Cameron following a series of rebellions by back-benchers over Europe and the Lords.
Education Secretary Michael Gove moved to quell any talk of a leadership challenge last night, dismissing the idea as “bonkeroony”. But there was further criticism of the Tories’ campaign. Former Tory donor and treasurer Lord Ashcroft was among those critical of the attacks on Ukip by Mr Clarke and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
In his blog, Lord Ashcroft added: “There is no getting away from the Ukip result. Nigel Farage has captured a mood, and he has done so adeptly and with panache. Theories will abound as to how the Tories should
Tory back-bencher John Baron, who has written to the PM urging him to legislate in this parliament for a referendum on EU membership after the election, said that the party leadership must now learn from its “errors” in handling the Ukip threat. He said: “Our commitment to an EU referendum needs to be believable. Why, then, bother voting Ukip?”
Tory former Cabinet minister John Redwood said the results showed that voters, like Conservative MPs, “want faster progress on the new relationship with the EU”.
Last night, the Prime Minister promised to “work really hard” to win back voters who abandoned the Conservatives for Ukip.
Mr Cameron said there were “major lessons” for all the mainstream parties. “For the Conservatives, I understand why some people who have supported us before didn’t support us again,” he said. “They want us to do even more to work for hard-working people to sort out the issues they care about.
“More to help with the cost of living, more to turn the economy round, more to get immigration down, to sort out the welfare system. They will be our focus, they are our focus, but we have got to do more.”
Asked if he stood by his “fruitcakes” attack on Ukip, Mr Cameron said: “Well, look, it is no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for … We need to show respect for people who have taken the choice to support this party and we are going to work really hard to win them back.”
Mr Farage said Ukip now has “every chance” of winning a Commons seat at the next by-election in a marginal constituency, which the party hopes will come at Portsmouth South this summer if beleaguered Lib Dem Mike Hancock is forced to stand down. The Ukip leader said: “We have been abused by everybody, the entire establishment, and now they are shocked and stunned that we are getting over 25 per cent of the vote
everywhere we stand across the country. This is a real sea-change in British politics.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband travelled to Hastings in East Sussex to celebrate three gains in a southern constituency where the party must make inroads if it is to live up to his “One Nation” slogan.
Asked whether he was worried about the threat of Ukip, he said: “In a way, part of Labour’s challenge at the next election campaign is not the Tories, or the Lib Dems or even Ukip, it’s the idea that nobody can
really change the country, and that mainstream parties can’t change the country.
“I believe Labour can change the country. I believe we have convinced a lot of people of that in these elections and that’s why we have made a lot of gains, but I also know that there’s work to do that goes on.”
Lib Dem president Tim Farron acknowledged the result in South Shields was “shocking” for his party, but insisted it did not represent the whole picture.