The Tories and Labour suffered today as voters turned to Ukip in the local elections, with the two largest parties in Westminster losing control of councils as a result of gains for Nigel Farage’s “people’s army”.
Stunning results in southern councils appeared to indicate that Essex Man was increasingly voting Ukip and, in a worrying sign for Ed Miliband, the party also made inroads in Labour’s northern heartlands.
Ukip gained 11 seats in Basildon to ensure it went from Tory to no overall control, and gains in Castle Point and Southend resulted in the loss of Conservative majority control in those authorities.
The Essex surge by Ukip also hit Labour, which lost control of Thurrock – a key Westminster target for Mr Miliband’s party – as Mr Farage’s party picked up five gains.
Ukip denied it had a particular strategy to target Essex voters, insisting the success was “a reflection of how organised we are becoming” in different areas of the country.
In the north, Ukip showed it could pose a threat to Labour in its strongholds, t aking 10 of the 21 council seats up for election in Rotherham, including nine gains, and polling an average of 47% where its candidates stood.
Senior Labour figures acknowledged the impact that the rise of Ukip had on their vote, while a group of Tory backbenchers called for a pact with the party to avoid splitting the Eurosceptic vote in next year’s general election.
The Liberal Democrats were also expecting to “take a kicking” from voters as a result of the policies implemented by the coalition Government.
Ukip director of communications Patrick O’Flynn said he wanted the party to secure more than 100 council seats, telling Sky News: “That would be terrific for us. I think we can do it.”
A further indication of whether the party can achieve its hoped-for political “earthquake” will come when votes in the European elections are counted on Sunday, with opinion polls suggesting they could finish first.
Votes were cast throughout the UK for the European Parliament contest to return 73 MEPs, while more than 4,000 council seats at 161 English local authorities, including the London boroughs and those in Northern Ireland, are also up for election.
Labour sources had indicated that the party might win 200 seats on a good night, but senior MP Emily Thornberry said she expected the figure to be “around 150”.
The party failed to break through in southern battlegrounds such as Swindon, although it claimed to have won the popular vote in the Wiltshire town’s two parliamentary constituencies.
Labour also expected success in London, where the impact of Ukip appeared to be more limited.
A senior Labour source acknowledged that Ukip’s rise had “some impact” on Ed Miliband’s party but claimed it was “looking as though there has been a big Tory/Lib Dem collapse”.
But there was criticism of Labour’s efforts from Eurosceptic MP Graham Stringer, who told the BBC: “We have not done as well as we should have done in both the presentation of our policies and the organisation of the campaign.”
Labour former minister David Lammy said he would have liked to see the party make gains in places such as Swindon.
He claimed voters had been “swallowing” Ukip’s message on immigration and Europe.
Mr Lammy told Sky News: “There’s no doubt about it, Ukip are biting into parts of Labour’s working-class vote.
“Ukip have a very simple message, which is if you’re worried about your son’s unemployment, if you’re renting, if you can’t get a council house, if your wages are stagnating, that the problem is immigration and the solution is we’re going to pull out of Europe.
“The truth of that is something quite different but people are believing that message, they are swallowing that message, and I think that mainstream parties have to look very clearly now over the next short while at how they penetrate the protest that’s been demonstrated tonight.”
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told Sky News the Tories were continuing to gain seats from Labour, adding: “If I was sitting in Labour headquarters tonight, I would be worried.
“This does not feel to me like the start of an evening that is the path to Downing Street in nine or 10 months’ time.”
David Cameron said he was proud of the Tory election campaign,”whatever the results”, in an email to supporters.
But Tory MPs Douglas Carswell, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone called for the Conservatives and Ukip to work together in 2015 to ensure a referendum on Europe.
Mr Rees-Mogg told the BBC: “In a first-past-the-post system, if they don’t get those votes into one pot, then both those sides end up losing.”
With the Liberal Democrats expecting a further erosion in their local government powerbase and a potential wipeout of their MEP, Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “It is going to be a difficult night – I think we’ve never concealed that – but not just for us. I think both Labour and the Conservatives will find it difficult tonight.
“But we’re in Government, we take a kicking for the things the Government does that are unpopular and it does reflect on us.”
He told Sky News he expected the Lib Dems would be “pleasantly surprised” by the outcome of the council results in areas where the party is well organised.
The party saw off a Ukip challenge to hold Eastleigh, and also retained seats in the constituencies of Birmingham Yardley MP John Hemming and Mid Dorset and North Poole’s Annette Brooke.
The party has focused its efforts on areas where it has MPs – including the Tory target Kingston-upon-Thames, where Lib Dem Cabinet minister Ed Davey has his Westminster seat.
Mr Cable dismissed talk that Nick Clegg’s future as Lib Dem leader could be called into question if the party endured a poor night, saying: “There isn’t a leadership issue and I think he has enhanced respect as a result of being willing to engage with these very difficult issues.”
Four Ukip gains also led to the Tories losing control of Maidstone, Kent, with Labour also picking up a seat to double its representation on the council.
The Liberal Democrats were also hit by Ukip, losing control of Portsmouth as Mr Farage’s party picked up six seats on the city’s council.
Under-fire MP Mike Hancock lost his council seat in Portsmouth after attempting to be re-elected as an independent.
Mr Hancock, who was suspended from the Liberal Democrat party in January, lost his Fratton seat on the city council to Ukip’s Julie Swan.
The Portsmouth South MP, who sits in Parliament as an independent, is being sued in the High Court by a “vulnerable” female constituent who alleges that he sexually assaulted her.
He denies the allegations.
Labour seized control in Hammersmith and Fulham, previously a flagship Tory authority.
Eleven Tory wards went to Labour – leaving the council with 26 Labour seats and 20 Conservative.
Tory deputy chief whip Greg Hands, MP for Chelsea and Fulham, indicated that Labour had picked up votes from disaffected Lib Dems.
He said: “Disappointing results in some wards in Hammersmith and Fulham. Overall, increase in Labour vote almost identical to fall in the Lib Dem vote.”