Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has suffered a massive blow to his authority as his Liberal Democrat party fell victim to a bloodbath in elections in England, Scotland and Wales - and probable defeat on the totemic issue of electoral reform.
The Liberal Democrats lost swathes of seats in former council strongholds in the north of England to Labour, while haemorrhaging support to the Scottish National Party (SNP) north of the border.
A political earthquake in Scotland saw the SNP snatch at least 10 seats from Labour, increasing its share of the vote by more than 13% in the first 25 constituencies to declare and putting Alex Salmond on course for an overall majority in his second term as first minister.
Declaring himself “delighted” with the results, Mr Salmond confirmed he will press ahead with a referendum on independence in the coming four-year term at Holyrood, saying: “Just as the people have bestowed trust on us, we must trust the people as well.”
Labour gained overall control of eight councils, including Sheffield, Hull, Bolton, Stoke and Telford. Some 12 Lib Dem wards fell to Labour in Liverpool, 10 each in Manchester and Hull and nine in Sheffield - Mr Clegg’s home town.
But the 204 seats gained by Labour by 5am did not appear to be enough for leader Ed Miliband to claim a major breakthrough in his drive to steer the party back into power nationally.
And he saw his leader in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray, scrape back in by a wafer-thin majority of 151 as the SNP secured the bulk of the benefit of protest votes against the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government.
Labour’s best results came in the Welsh Assembly, where it took Llanelli from Plaid Cymru and Blaenau Gwent from an Independent and increased its share of the vote by 10.5% in the first 20 constituencies to declare.
Thursday’s elections sparked a bitter war of words between the coalition partners, with former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown accusing prime minister David Cameron of a “breach of faith” by allowing the largely Conservative-funded No campaign to turn their fire on Mr Clegg in the referendum on electoral reform, where a result is due later today.
“You cannot fund a deeply vicious campaign to destroy the personality of your partner, who has been unmoved in his brave support of the coalition, without there being consequences,” Lord Ashdown told The Times in an interview before any votes were counted.
“When it comes to the bonhomie of the Downing Street rose garden, it’s never again glad confident morn.”
There were no calls from prominent Lib Dems for their leader to go or to quit the coalition, but a number of senior figures pressed for the party to take a more independent stance within the government.
Deputy leader Simon Hughes said Lib Dem “trust” in the Conservatives had been knocked by their conduct of the referendum campaign and indicated the party would demand concessions on key issues like NHS reform where Conservative ministers have strayed beyond the terms of last year’s coalition agreement.
“From now on, we are very clear that we will keep to what the coalition has agreed in the Coalition Agreement,” said Mr Hughes. “Other stuff will not be allowed in as policy unless our party has agreed to it.”
Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock said the party had to “make our price for cooperation a lot harder than we have up to now” and make clear to Mr Cameron it will not go along with Mr Lansley’s NHS reforms.
And former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris insisted the “strategy from the top down, including the deputy prime minister, must change”.
“We do not need to be so collegiate as we have been over the last year,” said Dr Harris, who sits on the party’s Federal Policy Committee. “For the next four years we are entitled to show our differences in public.”
Conservatives appeared to have escaped any voter backlash against their record in the first year of coalition government, gaining six councillors and control of West Somerset by the time the first 65 councils in England had declared. The party was also celebrating victory in the Welsh Assembly seat of Montgomeryshire.
Energy secretary Chris Huhne said he was not surprised by the results.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s inevitable that if you have mid-term elections, governments do badly and these are the first mid-term elections that the Liberal Democrats have had since 1945.”