“A tough night” was what Conservative chairman Sayeeda Warsi predicted for her party. And so it proved. With 98 of 181 councils declared, the Tories have lost 278 seats, while Labour has gained 461 and is on course to win hundreds more – its best local election result since 1997. The results are equivalent to Labour having 39 per cent of the national vote, with the Tories on 31 per cent and the Lib Dems on 16 per cent, figures that, if replicated at a general election, would see Ed Miliband comfortably ensconced in Downing Street. To the key question of the night – has Labour done well enough? – the answer is yes. There was disappointment in Bradford, where George Galloway’s Respect won five seats, including one from its Labour leader, and more could follow in Glasgow, where the SNP is hoping to win overall control of the council. But the results will, for now, settle the doubts over Miliband’s leadership.
Already, Conservative MPs have rushed to offer their own idiosyncratic explanations for the Tories’ defeat. Gerald Howarth, a defence minister, has blamed David Cameron’s support for gay marriage, Bernard Jenkin has said House of Lords reform needs to go, Martin Vickers has cited the decision to cut the 50p tax rate (rather than fuel duty), while Gary Streeter, a noted moderate, has said Cameron needs to be tougher on crime to halt the Ukip surge. Expect the blame game to continue across the weekend.
In many ways, however, the real story of the night was the disastrously low turnout. At just 32 per cent, it was the lowest figure since 2000, confirming the alienation many voters feel from the entire political class. The anti-politics mood is one explanation for the resounding rejection of directly-elected city mayors. The voters simply don’t want more politicians. Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry have all voted against having a mayor, while Birmingham appears to have done the same. Cameron’s call for “a Boris in every city” has fallen on deaf ears.
The aforementioned Boris should provide the Tories with something to celebrate when the London mayoral election results are announced this evening but that won’t stop Conservative MPs using this as an opportunity to air the greivances that have mounted over the last few weeks. In today’s Times (£), ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie suggests the party could be rediscovering its taste for regicide. Unless Cameron finds an “election game-changer”, he writes, “the party might very reluctantly reach for the blond-coloured nuclear button”. Boris’s re-election will be seen as proof that Conservatives can win if they refuse to compromise and make an unashamedly right-of-centre pitch. The next 48 hours could be very uncomfortable for Cameron.