Theresa May appeared on course for an overwhelming general election victory after the Conservatives made sweeping gains in local elections, with Labour forced into retreat and the UK Independence party suffering an almost complete wipeout.
The prime minister’s decision to fight a “Brexit election” and to adopt populist tactics in picking a fight this week with Brussels appeared to reap immediate dividends in the local polls, which saw the Tories gain more than 500 seats across the country.
In the most dramatic sign of the Conservative advance, Andy Street, former managing director of John Lewis, narrowly won the mayoralty of the West Midlands, beating Labour in one of its biggest strongholds.
Psephologists said Mrs May was now better placed ahead of the June 8 election than Margaret Thatcher was before her landslide victories of 1983 and 1987, as the Tory advance moved into uncharted territory, including deprived districts of Glasgow.
A BBC projection of how the votes might translate into a general election put the Tories on 38 per cent of the national vote, Labour on 27, Liberal Democrats on 18 and Ukip on 5, suggesting Mrs May could be heading for a landslide.
Labour suffered losses in its heartlands in the local elections, losing control of Glasgow for the first time since 1980 and in south Wales, although the party took some consolation from winning metropolitan mayoralties in Liverpool and Manchester.
The collapse of Ukip, which won almost 4m votes at the 2015 election, is a major boost for Mrs May, who has sought to present herself as the best person to deliver Brexit, adopting some of the language and policies of the insurgent anti-EU party.
Ukip lost almost all of its council representation, while the Liberal Democrats were becalmed, making gains in some urban areas but losing ground to the Tories in the Leave-voting south-west.
The Conservatives even made substantial gains in Scotland, where there were the first signs that the Scottish National party’s grip on politics north of the border is starting to weaken, even if it remains the biggest party in local government.
With most results in late Friday, the Conservatives had gained 514 seats, while Labour was down 339, Lib Dems down 34 and SNP down 18. Ukip lost all but one of the 140 seats it was defending.
Mrs May said she did not “take anything for granted” in next month’s general election; Conservative strategists fear that voters might feel it is “safe” to vote for opposition parties if they believe the Tories are certain to win in any event.
But the results pile the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader. His close ally John McDonnell admitted that the results were “tough”, although he said that the party had shown in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool that it was still in the election fight.
Andy Burnham, the former Labour health secretary, won a convincing victory to become mayor of Greater Manchester. However, the Conservatives won the mayoralty in another strong Labour territory, the Tees Valley.
A total of 4,851 council seats were up for grabs in 88 councils — all of the councils in Scotland and Wales and 34 in England — five weeks before the general election.
Mrs May is hoping that Tory gains in all parts of the UK will provide a springboard to a big victory in the general election.
Some Labour figures believe the party will outperform national polls in the local contests, where local records could count more than a perception of Mr Corbyn’s leadership qualities.
One of the battlegrounds in the council elections is south-west England, where the Lib Dems had been hoping to recover ground against the Tories in spite of the region voting overwhelmingly to leave the EU. But in councils such as Somerset and Dorset, the Tories made gains and the Lib Dems lost seats.
The Lib Dems are hoping to make net gains but accept that the proximity of the general election — and the apparent popularity of Mrs May — could make it harder for the pro-EU party to make ground in the local elections.