Boris Johnson is facing a Tory backlash after the party suffered a string of losses in the local elections amid voter anger over lockdown parties in Downing Street.
The Prime Minister admitted it had been a “tough night” as the Conservatives lost more than 300 councillors, Labour strengthened its grip on London and the Liberal Democrats made gains in Tory heartlands.
He insisted however that he would not be deflected from the task of dealing with the “economic aftershocks” of Covid, despite renewed calls from some Tories for him to stand down.
An analysis for the BBC by Professor Sir John Curtice calculated that if the whole country had been voting Labour would have gained 35% of the vote – five points ahead of the Tories on 30% – the party’s biggest lead in local elections for a decade.
However, allies of Mr Johnson argued that it would still not translate into a Labour victory at a general election.
Labour also suffered a blow with the announcement that police are going to investigate whether a party event last year in Durham attended by Sir Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner breached Covid regulations.
The party insisted no rules had been broken after Durham Police said an inquiry was under way after it received “significant new information”.
Labour’s most striking gains came in London where it took the totemic Tory authority in Wandsworth, won Westminster for the first time since its creation in 1964 and clinched victory in Barnet.
It also took Southampton from the Conservatives and Worthing in traditionally Tory West Sussex from no overall control.
The Liberal Democrats took the new unitary authorities of Somerset – also traditional Conservative territory – and Westmorland and Furness and dislodged the Tories in West Oxfordshire, pushing the council into no overall control.
Sir Keir said the results were a “turning point” while Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said they would send an “almighty shockwave” through the Government.
Speaking to broadcasters during a visit to a school in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, Mr Johnson said it had been a “mixed set of results” for the Tories.
“It is mid-term,” he said.
“We had a tough night in some parts of the country but on the other hand in other parts of the country you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”
He said the “message from voters” was that they wanted the Government to focus on getting the country through the economic aftermath of Covid.
“This Government is absolutely determined to keep going with every ounce of compassion and ingenuity that we have, get people through the economic aftershocks,” he said.
However David Simmonds, the Tory MP for neighbouring Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, said the issue of lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street had kept coming up on the doorstep.
“He (Mr Johnson) needs to find a way to restore confidence in the Government and I think there’s a number of ways he might do that,” he told the PA news agency.
“A change of leader would be one of them. Alternatively he needs to demonstrate what the alternative plan would be.”
Mr Johnson could face a leadership challenge if 53 Tory MPs – 15% of the parliamentary party – write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, calling for a vote of no confidence.
Some MPs who previously called for him to step down have since backed off amid the crisis in Ukraine, but the results may prompt a new round of soul-searching within the party.
Veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale who had previously called for rebels to back off because of Ukraine, told PA that the strength of feeling against Mr Johnson may become an “unstoppable tide”.
Most of the Prime Minister’s critics at Westminster were however keeping a low profile as they pondered their next move.
Among grassroots Tories there was anger and frustration that local councillors were paying the price for what they said were the failures of the national leadership.
John Mallinson, leader of Carlisle City Council, hit out after Labour took control of the new Cumberland authority which will replace it.
He told the BBC: “I think it is not just partygate, there is the integrity issue.
“Basically I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that the Prime Minister can be relied upon to tell the truth.”
Ravi Govindia, leader of the Wandsworth Tories, said: “Let’s not be coy about it, of course national issues were part of the dilemma people were facing.”
That did not deter a jubilant Sir Keir from proclaiming clear evidence of a Labour revival following its crushing defeat in the 2019 general election.
“This is a big turning point for us,” he told cheering supporters in Barnet. “We’ve sent a message to the Prime Minister: Britain deserves better.”
Sir Ed said the Lib Dems stood poised to make further gains at the general election following recent by-election successes.
“What began as a tremor in Chesham and Amersham, became an earthquake in North Shropshire, and is now an almighty shockwave that will bring this Conservative Government tumbling down,” he said.
After full results were declared from 175 councils across England, Scotland and Wales, the Tories had lost control of 11 authorities and suffered a net loss of 317 councillors.
Labour had a net gain of eight councils and 177 seats, the Lib Dems had gained five councils and 166 councillors, and the Greens had put on 37 councillors.