By Andrew Porter and James Kirkup | Gordon Brown is set for punishing losses in his first electoral test as Prime Minister after the Conservatives made key gains across the country. With more than 1 million votes counted, a BBC projection based on results in key wards forecast Labour will record 24 per cent of the national vote, its worst result in a generation. The Tories were projected to win 47 per cent.
However, the official Conservative HQ projection put the party’s final share on 43 per cent.
The Tories won control of a series of target councils, including Bury and Southampton, and by have gained almost 70 council seats.
Labour by contrast, has lost more than 60 council seats and control of four councils.
Conservative strategists are predicting the party was on course to gain more than 200 council seats, while Labour officials admitted they were likely to lose that number. The Tory leader David Cameron is likely to claim the results are his party’s biggest electoral boost while in opposition.
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A spokesman said: “Gordon Brown has had his Life on Mars moment. He went to sleep in 2008 and today he’s waking up with support back to the worst his party has seen since records began in 1973.”
As the results came in, the Minister for London Tessa Jowell, who masterminded Labour’s campaign in the capital, conceded “this is likely to be tough”.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary and Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, said the Government now had to listen to the fears of middle class southern voters.
He said: “There have been some disappointments tonight. We have to go back to voters and say we are listening, we will get back to what people have enjoyed in the south in the past 10 years.”
Shadow chancellor George Osborne said it looked like it was going to be “a very good night” for the Conservatives.
The results suggested Mr Brown will face a summer of discontent as his own MPs consider whether there is any possibility that he can lead Labour to a general election success. Labour insiders feared the results would be even worse than Tony Blair’s poor showing at last year’s local elections.
Only a win today for Ken Livingstone in London over Boris Johnson would save any face for Labour. The results are not expected until this evening and last night the result still appeared on a knife edge.
The Conservatives unexpectedly picked up wards in Swansea, Sunderland, Durham and Wigan.
In perhaps the biggest surprise of the early declaration, the Tories also won control of Southampton from its ruling Labour-Lib Dem coalition.
The last time the Tories held control in the city was 1984. The party also won control of Bedworth, Harlow and West Lindsey councils.
All had been considered possible but not probable gains for Mr Cameron’s party, and the results fuelled expectations of a dismal night for Labour.
The Liberal Democrats meanwhile claimed they had taken control of Hull, once a Labour stronghold.
Labour was resigned to lose Reading, a council it has held since 1986 and its last southern foothold outside London.
There were 4,023 seats up for election on 137 English councils and 22 Welsh ones.
London voters were also choosing a mayor, with the results of the race between Mr Livingstone and Mr Johnson due to be declared this evening.
The elections are the first real test of Gordon Brown’s standing among voters.
David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North, said many voters were unconvinced by Gordon Brown’s record to date.
He said: “Floating voters are still uncertain about the Government and how it has performed over the past six months. We knew this was going to be a difficult night.”
”Our aim has been to limit the damage and hold on to what we have got.”
However, the biggest Conservative hope for gains in the north, North Tyneside, will not declare until this afternoon.
And Labour was preparing to take some cold comfort from the Tories’ continued troubles in bid northern cities.
After several dismal weeks and the damaging Labour rebellion over the 10 p tax rate, senior Labour sources believe disillusioned voters have delivered a severe reprimand to his Government.
Based on private reports from Labour activists, the party was projecting a “spread” of 25 Ã‚ 27 per cent of the vote, against 44 Ã‚ 47 per cent for the Tories.
Turn out is thought to be up throughout the country and in London.
Labour strategists plan to blame bad results on popular worries about the economy and the global credit crunch.
”These are elections being fought against a difficult economic backdrop,” said Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister and a key confidante of Mr Brown.
Labour figures are taking limited comfort in their projections that the Tories will not make major gains in the North of England, suggesting the Conservatives will not realise their ambitions to take councils like North Tyneside and Bury.
Mr Brown will “take it on the chin” and come out in a string of media appearances on Sunday to say he understands the anger and concern of voters, and promise to respond over the coming months and years.
Key to the Labour recovery strategy is an optimistic view of the UK economy. The Bank of England on Wednesday said that the worst of the global credit crunch could be over and Mr Brown is betting on a significant up-turn.
Yet an ICM poll for BBC Newsnight shows that the economy is, for now, a major Labour vulnerability.
The poll, showed the share of voters who trust to run the economy is 32 per cent, down from 48 per cent a year ago.
The Tories meanwhile scored 46 per cent, up from 36 per cent.
Labour’s long-term strategy is to meet such concerns by drawing a sharp contrast between Mr Brown’s decade at the Treasury with Mr Cameron’s lack of significant government experience.
In the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Brown derided his opponent as a “shallow salesman” who lacks substance.
Speaking on BBC Newsnight last night, Mr Miliband said personal credibility will be decisive.
He said: “In difficult economic times, Gordon Brown is absolutely the right person to lead Britain.”
The ICM poll showed that
42 per cent of voters believe the Prime Minster is an electoral asset for Labour, and 52 per cent said he is a liability
Mr Cameron’s ratings were 68 per cent against 24 per cent.