Rishi Sunak’s Tories are braced for heavy losses, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats both making gains in elections across England.
The contests were the first to be fought under new rules requiring voters to carry photographic ID, and the elections watchdog said “regrettably” some people were turned away from polling stations as a result.
The Conservatives lost control of councils in Tamworth and Brentford, while Labour replaced them as the largest party in Hartlepool and Worcester.
Senior Conservatives have sought to present the setbacks as a mid-term “blip”, but with the prospect of a general election in 2024 there will be concerns that they have suffered losses in the north, south and the Midlands.
The Tories will seek to portray any defeat below that scale as better than expected – although the loss of hundreds of councillors will not help morale within the Conservative ranks.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the party had experienced a “bit of a blip” following the turmoil in No 10 which saw Boris Johnson and Liz Truss ousted before Mr Sunak took office.
He attempted to present the expected losses as mid-term blues for the Tories, telling Sky News: “The British people are a very sensible group of folk and they understand what’s important.
“Occasionally they like to give political parties a bit of a reminder of who the politicians serve. Certainly when you get into being mid-term in a government you get quite a bit of that.”
The Tories are nervous about the situation in Bolton, where they were the biggest party, and they also fear for their control in Windsor and Maidenhead.
The Liberal Democrats claimed to have made big gains in the royal borough, with control on a knife edge.
Labour expects to make significant gains in Plymouth and take control of the council in the city which contains Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer’s seat – a key general election target.
In Tamworth – the seat of scandal-hit former Tory whip Chris Pincher – Labour made seven gains, pushing it from Conservative into no overall control.
With full results from 30 out of the 230 councils where elections were being held:
– The Tories lost control of two councils and suffered a net loss of 49 councillors.
– Labour had a net gain of 39 councillors.
– The Liberal Democrats had put on a net 14 councillors.
Labour claimed that, based on the aggregate vote, the party would have won the Westminster constituencies of Hartlepool, Stevenage, Dudley South, Ipswich, West Bromwich East, Great Grimsby and Aldershot, which has been held by the Tories since its creation as a seat in 1918.
A Labour source said: “Tory MPs will be very worried. This is supposed to be Rishi Sunak’s political honeymoon, but on these results they would have lost a bunch of seats — including one they’ve held for over 100 years.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “I have knocked on countless doors in recent weeks and heard real anger and frustration from voters who are sick and tired of being taken for granted by this Conservative government. Tonight their voices will be heard.”
The elections were branded a “dark day for British democracy” by campaigners opposed to the introduction of photo ID, who claimed thousands of people had been denied their right to vote.
But Mr Heaton-Harris insisted the policy was a “thoroughly good thing” even though the elections watchdog said some people had been turned away from polling stations.
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “We already know from our research that the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and that some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result.
“It will be essential to understand the extent of this impact, and the reasons behind it, before a final view can be taken on how the policy has worked in practice and what can be learned for future elections.”
Tom Brake of Unlock Democracy, who is leading a coalition of groups opposed to the policy including the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK and Open Britain, said: “Today has been a dark day for British democracy.
“Reports from all over the country confirm our very worst fears of the impact of the disastrous policy which has been made worse by the shambolic way it has been introduced.”
The Association of Electoral Administrators’ chief executive Peter Stanyon said there had been “many anecdotal reports” of people being unable to vote but “it is still too early to gauge how introducing voter ID has gone”.
More than 8,000 council seats were up for election on Thursday across 230 local authorities, while mayors were being chosen in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.
The last time the same council seats were contested was in May 2019, when the Tories performed poorly under Theresa May as she struggled with Brexit and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn also suffered.
The Conservatives lost more than 1,300 council seats and majority political control of 44 councils, meaning they had less to lose on Thursday than they might have done.
About a quarter of the votes are expected to be counted overnight, with the rest counted during the day on Friday.