PRIME Minister David Cameron was facing a growing revolt in his party on Friday night, as right-wing Conservatives pushed for policy changes following a drubbing at the polls.
• Labour on course to exceed prediction of 700 gains
• Conservative / Lib Dem coalition punished at the polls
• Vote share: Conservatives 31%; Labour 39%; Lib Dems 16%; others 14%
It is understood an alternative Queen’s Speech is to be presented to Mr Cameron by back-bench Tories, with the backing of some ministers, urging him to ditch certain planned Lib Dem policies.
Defence minister Gerald Howarth was one of the first to speak out, when he said the scale of the defeat meant Mr Cameron needed to drop plans for House of Lords reform and gay marriage, causes close to the hearts of the Lib Dems.
But despite seeing his party lose more than 400 councillors, Mr Cameron insisted there would be no change of direction and that he would continue to “take the difficult decisions”.
Sources have suggested, however, that he may attempt to mollify his critics by revamping his government with a ministerial reshuffle in the summer.
In contrast, it was a stunning night for Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose success meant he saw off any threat of a leadership challenge.
His party gained more than 30 councils and more than 800 seats, with one of their few disappointments being the loss of five wards in Bradford.
Among their gains were the key councils of Birmingham, Harlow, Cardiff, Coventry, Swansea and Great Yarmouth.
The result in Birmingham was particularly symbolic because previously it had been run by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
Labour’s shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, described the election as “seismic”, while shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain said it was a platform for the party to win the next general election.
Mr Miliband said he was determined to show Labour could “deliver Britain the change it needs”, adding: “We are a party winning back people’s trust, regaining ground, but there is more work to do.”
The main concern for Labour was that its victory was based on low turnouts, indicating voter apathy.
Mr Miliband said: “What worries me is that there are people who think politics can’t change things for them. There are lots of people who think that politics can’t answer the problems in their lives. I’m determined that Labour shows that we can do that, that actually people can put their faith in us.
“More people put their faith in us than in the elections a year ago, and I’m pleased they’ve done that.”
If it was a good night for Labour, it was a disastrous one for the Lib Dems, with Nick Clegg’s party sinking to its lowest number of councillors since it was formed in 1988.
Embarrassingly, the Lib Dems lost Cambridge council, which they had held for 12 years, to their Conservative partners in the coalition.
Mr Clegg said he was “really sad” that so many Lib Dem councillors had lost their seats, but added: “I am determined that we will continue to play our role in rescuing, repairing and reforming the British economy. It’s not an easy job and it can’t be done overnight, but our duty is to boost jobs and investment and to restore a sense of hope and optimism to our country.”
After a difficult few weeks when his government’s Budget was heavily criticised, the Home Office bungled its attempt to deport radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada and ministers were criticised for provoking a fuel crisis, the main questions on Friday were hanging over the Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron apologised to Conservative councillors who lost their seats against “a difficult national backdrop”. However, he rejected suggestions he should change course, saying: “These are difficult times, and there aren’t easy answers.”
But this failed to satisfy his critics, with one Tory source suggesting that even a reshuffle would need to be dramatic to satisfy party members, many of whom either stayed at home or turned to Ukip, who polled about 13 per cent in the seats where they were standing. Chief among the Tory targets were party co-chairwoman Baroness Warsi, who is seen as ineffectual, and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, whose mishandling of NHS reforms started the party’s slide down the opinion polls.
Tory MPs also made it clear they wanted to see proposed Lib Dem bills dropped from the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday – their main targets were gay marriage and the expected reform of the House of Lords.
However, any suggestion that the Queen’s Speech would not include reform of the Lords was dismissed by Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable. He said: “I don’t see any problem with it, given that all the main parties agree with reforming the House of Lords.”