The Tories were braced for a “really, really tough night” as counting was under way in the the English local council elections.
Amid voter anger at the continuing wrangling over Brexit, the Brexit Minister James Cleverly suggested he would be relieved if the losses could be held to 500 council seats.
“Nine years into government you would expect us to be losing lots and lots of seats,” he told the BBC.
“It would be unrealistic for me to pretend after nine years in government and Brexit as a backdrop that this is going to be anything other than a really, really tough night for us.
“If it was 500 (seats lost), rather than 1,000, I would be happy with that.”
With some analysts predicting losses of 800 or more for the Tories, the results are likely to pile pressure on Theresa May at a time she is embroiled in a row over the sacking of ex-defence secretary Gavin Williamson.
The senior Tory Brexiteer MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said voters overwhelmingly believed that she had “lost the plot” and that the time had come for a change of leader.
“She still has a degree of personal sympathy but I think people think it is time for a change. They can see that she has lost the plot. They can see she is not in control of events,” he told the BBC.
“Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her to move on.”