From its heartland in southern England through the rugged Welsh valleys, the governing Conservatives were trounced in local elections Friday, increasing the chances for a challenge to Prime Minister John Major.
In a near-record showing, the left-of-center Labor Party seemed set to reap nearly half the vote, the British Broadcasting Corp. predicted.
In Wales, the Conservatives lost their only local authority, Monmouthshire, making it almost certain that - as in Scotland - they will control no local authorities.
“It’s looking extremely good,” said Labor leader Tony Blair, whose reforms have made the left-of-center party more attractive to middle-class voters. “People in this country have been crying out for a sensible, mainstream alternative to the Conservatives and now they have got one.”
With results declared in 280 of the 346 councils at stake in England and Wales, Labor controlled 133 councils, the Conservatives just seven, and the centrist Liberal Democrats 37. Among the rest, no party had overall control.
A BBC computer analysis predicted Labor would finish with 47 percent of the vote, with the Conservatives crumbling to 24 percent, their worst-ever showing, and the centrist Liberal Democrats getting 23 percent.
The Conservatives appeared on course to lose some 2,000 seats altogether in town halls, which some analysts believe could trigger a challenge to Major’s leadership of the party.
Labor had gained nearly 30 new councils and more than 1,000 seats, and the Conservatives had lost 35 councils and about 1,300 seats.
“It’s a very bad night for us,” acknowledged Major’s environment secretary, John Gummer.
“The Conservative Party is in a longer, deeper trough than polls have ever measured before,” said Bob Worcester, American head of Market Opinion and Research International, a polling group. “It looks like it’s going to be an unmitigated disaster for the Tories.”
After two successive debacles in annual municipal ballots, the Conservatives were down to running 66 councils before the vote, compared with 93 for the opposition Labor Party.