Tories and Labour suffer in council polls amid voter anger over Brexit
Voters punished the two main parties over Brexit as the Tories and Labour both suffered early losses in the English local council elections.
The Conservatives had been expecting a a tough night amid frustration at Theresa May's failure to take Britain out of the EU as planned.
But Labour also struggled, losing seats amid confusion among voters over the party's stance on Brexit.
In contrast the Liberal Democrats were on course for a strong performance, with predictions it could make as many as 500 gains, while the Greens and Ukip were also picking up seats.
By 3am, the Conservatives had lost 49 seats and Labour was down 29, while the Lib Dems were up 45, the Greens had gained 11 and Ukip four.
With some analysts predicting Tory overall loses of 800 seats or more, Brexit Minister James Cleverly said he would be "happy" if they could be held to 500.
"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," he told the BBC.
"If it was 500 (seats lost) rather than 1,000 I would be happy with that."
The results are likely to pile on the pressure on Mrs May, with many Conservative MPs pressing for her to stand aside.
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 said.
"Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her to move on."
The party lost control in Peterborough, Basildon, Southend, Worcester, St Albans and Tandridge, but held on in the bellwether council of Swindon and took Walsall from no overall control.
Labour meanwhile lost control in Hartlepool and Wirral and the mayoralty in Middlesbrough, where its vote was down 11% as independent Andy Preston was elected.
Even where the party held on in its traditional stronghold of Sunderland, which voted heavily for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, it still lost 10 council seats.
Council leader Graham Miller said the party had paid the price for its stance on Brexit, with some MPs calling for a second referendum.
"The people of Sunderland have said 'We are just not accepting that.' We have seen a massive protest vote on that issue tonight," he said.
Feels so good to see fabulous Lib Dem candidates winning and enjoying their well-deserved success. ❤— Jo Swinson (@joswinson) May 3, 2019
Positive news coming in from Vale of White Horse, North Norfolk, St Albans, Bath & NE Somerset, Hinckley & Bosworth... and many more places still to count. Well done! 💪🏼🔶️ pic.twitter.com/moJK4Z65WA
Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner acknowledged that it had been a difficult to get across the party's position – which is to back a second referendum in certain circumstances – on the doorstep.
"If a party is seen to be speaking with two voices, it is very difficult to connect when the policy of the party is a complex policy," he told the BBC.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats, who lost heavily in 2015, were buoyant, with deputy leader Jo Swinson predicting three-figure gains.
"Out and about across the country, the mood has been positive. If we can get into the triple figures of gains that would be a really, really good night," she said.
"That would be part of that Lib Dem fightback that is happening."