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The coalition is facing its biggest crisis after a dark day for the Lib Dems which saw them lose nearly 700 English council seats before their dream of voting reform was shattered as two thirds of voters decided to keep the current first past the post system. Not a single part of Yorkshire voted “yes” in the referendum in what Mr Clegg admitted was a “bitter blow”.
The Deputy Prime Minister – who saw Labour seize control of his own council, Sheffield, before the city voted “no” in the referendum – faced calls for him to quit by defeated councillors, although senior party figures rallied round.
But the coalition is in line for a bruising period, with Lib Dems – furious at the behaviour of Tories during the Alternative Vote campaign – pushing for concessions which will be fiercely rejected by emboldened Tory backbenchers.
Voters took out anger at Government spending cuts on the Lib Dems, with coalition partners the Conservatives remarkably increasing their number of seats and even taking control of North Lincolnshire Council from Labour in mixed results for Ed Miliband.
Labour won 800 council seats in England – taking control of councils in Hull, where Lib Dem leader Carl Minns lost his seat, and York – and fell just one short of an outright majority in Wales, but the party had a disastrous night in Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) secured a majority which will allow it to push through a referendum seeking Scottish independence.
The surge of the SNP poses a threat to the unity of the United Kingdom and led David Cameron to swiftly pledge to campaign to keep the Union together.
Although senior figures defended him, Mr Clegg faced calls to quit from activists within his party after their worst local election results since the 1980s.
Gary Long, leader of the Lib Dems on Nottingham City Council who lost his seat yesterday, said: “I’m in favour of the coalition but I think he’s run it very badly and in my view he should resign immediately.”
The Sheffield Hallam MP brushed off those calls though, saying: “Clearly this has been a really disappointing day and we have had a lot of very disappointing results overnight, but we are going to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on.”
He meets his MPs at the start of next week, with some Lib Dems likely to demand more concessions from the Tories so the Lib Dems have more to trumpet to the voters, particularly watering down the Government’s controversial NHS proposals and slowing down police reforms.
However, the successful night for Mr Cameron – winning 81 council seats and the AV referendum – will embolden Tory backbenchers and could lead to some pressure to end the coalition. Tory backbencher Peter Bone said that the results meant that the coalition should be dissolved within one or two years’ time,.
But Mr Cameron said: “I am absolutely committed to make this coalition Government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term. It is then that I believe the coalition and its parties will be judged by the electorate.”
Senior figures on both sides of the coalition expect the character of the Government to change after its first electoral test and the bruising AV campaign.
Some have talked of a more “business-like” relationship while former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown warned of “consequences” for the Tories’ part in campaign attacks.