LONDON // Remarkable local elections results yesterday spelled trouble ahead for Britain's coalition government and held out the prospect of an independence referendum in Scotland within four years.
The future of the coalition was put in question especially as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were bitterly divided over a referendum to reform Britain's voting system, which ended in a defeat for the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats and the 'yes' campaign.
As results were declared throughout the day, it became clear that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) had pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind win to gain outright control of the 129-seat Scottish parliament.
Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, a former Liberal Democrat leader, warned that the council results and the acrimonious referendum campaign - with the 'no' campaign largely funded by the Tories - would have ramifications for the future of the coalition.
"The consequence is not that the coalition will break. There's a job to be done, it still will be done," he said in an ITV interview.
"But you cannot behave in that manner without affecting the trust and goodwill."
The collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in Scotland - mirrored in elections in England and Wales - contributed to the success of the SNP, which was 10 points behind the Labour Party in opinion polls at the turn of the year.
Most credit, though, went to the SNP's charismatic leader, Alex Salmond, who promptly promised an independence referendum within the four-year life of the new assembly, while most of the blame was attributed to a lacklustre Labour campaign, which concentrated too heavily on criticism of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in power in London, rather than on purely Scottish affairs.
The loss of so many supposedly safe Labour seats in Scotland caused discomfort for Labour nationally, though the party made solid gains in elections to the Welsh assembly and did respectably (though not sensationally) well in council elections in England.
It was in the latter that the Liberal Democrats did so badly, particularly in the north of England where they lost all their councillors in Manchester and 10 out of 12 in Liverpool. They also lost control of councils in Hull, Stockport and Sheffield, where Mr Clegg is an MP.
He admitted yesterday that the Liberal Democrats had taken a "real knock" but insisted that the results would not affect his party's support for the coalition government, which came to power after a general election a year ago.
He told reporters outside his London home: "We will need to learn the lessons from what we heard on the doorstep. But we need to get up, dust ourselves down and move on, because we have got a really big job to do."
For Labour leader Ed Miliband, it was not the night of unbridled success he was hoping for in his first electoral test for his party since he became leader.
While quietly rejoicing in the Liberal Democrats' humiliation, he admitted that he was "disappointed" with the outcome in Scotland, though pleased with Labour's gains in Wales and England. "We will have to learn our own lessons from what the public is saying to us (in Scotland)," he said as he left his home in London.
But he maintained that, in Britain as a whole, voters had sent a clear message rejecting the government's strategy of massive cuts in public spending to tackle the record budget deficit.
"What you have seen is voters sending a clear message to this government and the Liberal Democrats in particular," he said. "People have said: 'This is not what we voted for at the last general election'. I think the right thing to do is to listen to what people are saying."
Contrary to their own expectations, the ones with most to smile about, at least in England, were the Conservatives.
Although they lost council seats, their vote held up remarkably well, particularly in the south of England, apparently because voters took out most of their anger on the Liberal Democrats.