The local election results are a “punishment” for the Conservative response to Brexit, a Cabinet minister has conceded, after one in four Tory councillors lost their seats.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said the outcome would have been different had the Government succeeded in getting its Brexit deal through the Commons.
The Conservatives had dropped nearly 1,300 seats and lost control of 45 councils after the final results came in – the worst performance, in raw numbers, by a governing party in local elections since 1995.
Mr Gauke said the results were “very disappointing”, telling BBC Breakfast: “What we need to be doing is addressing the big issue in front of us, which is Brexit.
“We would have had a much better set of election results had we managed to get the Prime Minister’s meaningful vote through earlier this year and we left the European Union on March 29.
“I think we can look at those local election results as a punishment for both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party for failing to find a way through that situation.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the message from voters in local elections was: “Get on, deliver Brexit and then move on.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The electorate… right across the country want us to get on with Brexit and move on to all the other things they care about. I share that frustration.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt pointed the finger at “purist” Brexiteers in his party who he said were partially to blame for the Tories’ drubbing.
Asked who was responsible for the losses, he told reporters in Africa: “You can look at lots of different groups of people – you can look at Brexit purists in my party who have consistently refused to compromise and put Brexit in peril.
“You can for sure look at Government – I’m sure that there are things we could have done differently in the course of the negotiations. And you can look at the Labour Party who have played politics consistently.”
But it was a good night for the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Sir Vince Cable hailed the “best results we’ve had in the 40 years of our existence”.
Reflecting on several years of election losses, Mr Cable said the Lib Dems’ opposition to Brexit will help them in the upcoming European elections.
“We are clearly a major force, we are clearly the leading Remain party and we expect to do well on the basis of that,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Anger at the mounting scale of losses saw Tory leader Theresa May heckled as she gave a speech in Wales, with a man shouting: “Why don’t you resign? We don’t want you.”
Meanwhile, former Brexit secretary David Davis said he will not run to replace Mrs May as Prime Minister and declared his support for Dominic Raab in the upcoming contest for Conservative leader.
He said Mr Raab, 45, was “the best-placed Brexit candidate to win the necessary support among MPs and party members and, above all, broaden our appeal to voters”.
The Prime Minister appeared to put the future of her party in the hands of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, by welcoming his offer to help her resolve the Brexit deadlock.
As counts terminated, Mrs May could only claim the election was “always going to be difficult” at a speech in Grimsby, one of the few areas in which the Conservatives enjoyed success.
She said: “Because we haven’t delivered the Brexit deal through Parliament yet, this was going to be a particularly challenging set of elections for both of the main parties.”
Labour lost 63 seats when the party had expected to make gains, losing out to a surge in support for Lib Dems and Greens campaigning on an explicitly anti-Brexit ticket, as well as independent candidates.
Mr Corbyn left no doubt he saw the results as a demand for resolution of the Brexit impasse three years after the 2016 vote for EU withdrawal.
He told ITV: “I think it means there’s a huge impetus on every MP, and they’ve all got that message, whether they themselves are Leave or Remain – or the people across the country – that an arrangement has to be made, a deal has to be done, parliament has to resolve this issue. I think that is very, very clear.”