David Cameron is facing the toughest test of the coalition’s strength today after Conservatives and Liberal Democrats lost swathes of councillors to a resurgent Labour in elections across England, Scotland and Wales.
Disgruntled MPs – including one minister – issued open calls for the Prime Minister to assert Tory pre-eminence over Lib Dem coalition partners and ditch “barmy” policies on gay marriage and reform of the House of Lords.
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband said Labour was “winning back people’s trust”, after outperforming expectations by scooping more than 700 new councillors, gaining control over 29 councils and seeing off a Scottish National Party challenge in Glasgow.
In Labour’s best night since Tony Blair’s leadership, Mr Miliband saw his party make inroads into the south of England, seizing key councils such as Southampton, Exeter, Plymouth, Reading and Harlow and even snatching seats in Mr Cameron’s own Witney constituency in Oxfordshire.
Speaking to cheering activists in Birmingham, where Labour won back control after eight years of opposition, Mr Miliband said his party had shown it was “in touch with people’s concerns”.
“This Government promised change and they have made things worse, not better,” said Mr Miliband. “They are standing up for the rich and powerful, not standing up for the millions of ordinary families who need help.
“The message of these results is that when you have a Government piling unfairness on top of economic failure, people are not going to support them.”
After counting was completed in 174 of the 181 councils where elections were taking place, Labour had gained 750 seats, while Tories had lost 394 councillors and ceded control in 12 local authorities. Liberal Democrats endured a bruising night, shedding 297 councillors to reach their lowest level of local representation since the party was formed in 1988.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said he was “really sad”, 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.”
Mr Cameron apologised to Conservative councillors for the loss of their seats, which he blamed on the tough economic backdrop.
He said: “These are difficult times and there aren’t easy answers.
“What we have to do is take the difficult decisions to deal with the debt, deficit and broken economy that we’ve inherited and we will go on making those decisions and we’ve got to do the right thing for our country.”
Mr Cameron came under intense pressure to change course from MPs on the right of his party, who fear a haemorrhage of traditional Tory voters to the UK Independence Party.
“David Cameron, I think, is on notice that he does need to raise his game,” former ministerial aide Stewart Jackson, said. “He needs to concentrate on bread and butter issues likes jobs and mortgages and public services and above all develop a clear route map to growth and stop fixating on the agenda of a liberal clique and barmy policies such as Lords reform and gay marriage.”
Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing urged the Tory leader to “give rather less regard to the Liberal Democratic intellectual urban elite”, while former frontbencher Gary Streeter said his constituents were “gagging” for a tougher line on traditional Tory priorities like law and order.