Rishi Sunak has insisted he will push on with his agenda despite the Tories suffering major losses in his first electoral test as Prime Minister.
With the reporting of local election results under way on Friday, Labour claimed its victories so far suggest Sir Keir Starmer will be able enter in No 10 after a general election.
The Liberal Democrats also made gains as the Tories lost control of a series of councils across England.
Government minister and local MP Johnny Mercer said Labour gaining control of Plymouth, where the Tories had run a minority administration, was “terrible”, before the opposition seized another battleground with Stoke-on-Trent.
In Hertsmere, where Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden is MP, the Tories lost control of the council, with 13 councillors voted out while Labour gained seven and the Lib Dems six.
Tamworth, Brentwood, North West Leicestershire and East Lindsey fell from Tory administrations to no overall control.
Mr Sunak insisted it was “hard to draw firm conclusions” from the initial results after speaking to staff at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in central London on Friday morning.
“It’s always disappointing to lose hardworking Conservative councillors, they’re friends, they’re colleagues, and I’m so grateful to them for everything they’ve done,” he added.
“But in terms of the results, it’s still early. We’ve just had a quarter of the results in but what I am going to carry on doing is delivering on the people’s priorities.”
He cited his priorities as halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and “stopping the boats”, adding: “That’s what people want us to do, that’s what I’m going to keep hard at doing.”
The Prime Minister also claimed the Tories were “making progress in key electoral battlegrounds like Peterborough, Bassetlaw, Sandwell”.
The inroads for the Tories were debatable. In Sandwell, they gained two of 24 seats, while Labour gained four and held 18 more.
Elsewhere, the Conservatives lost control of South Kesteven in Lincolnshire, where the party had 36 of the 56 seats before polling day.
West Lindsey remained under no overall control but the Lib Dems replaced the Tories as the largest party.
Labour replaced the Tories as the largest party in Hartlepool and Worcester.
On the eve of the coronation, the Tories lost control in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, with the Lib Dems claiming victory.
A Lib Dem spokesman said it is a “massive blow to Rishi Sunak” and “Conservative MPs across the blue wall will be looking over their shoulder at the Lib Dems this morning”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the party had experienced a “bit of a blip” after the turmoil in No 10 which saw Boris Johnson and Liz Truss ousted before Mr Sunak took office.
He attempted to present the losses as mid-term blues for the Tories, telling Sky News: “The British people are a very sensible group of folk and they understand what’s important.
“Occasionally they like to give political parties a bit of a reminder of who the politicians serve. Certainly when you get into being mid-term in a government you get quite a bit of that.”
Veterans minister Mr Mercer told the BBC the Plymouth result was due to local factors and insisted the Prime Minister was “the sort of strong leader this country needs at this time”.
The council’s decision to fell dozens of trees in the city centre contributed to the loss of Tory support.
Mr Mercer said: “I think, locally, it has been very difficult. The Conservative group here has been through a very difficult time. We have seen that reflected on the doors, in the campaign and we have seen that reflected in the results tonight but, you know, we take it on the chin.”
Stoke-on-Trent North’s Tory MP Jonathan Gullis told Sky News that councillors had “suffered because, at the end of 2022, the Conservative Party as a brand was certainly damaged”.
In Tamworth – the seat of scandal-hit former Tory whip Chris Pincher – Labour made seven gains, pushing it from Conservative into no overall control.
But Labour’s attempts to regain Hull from the Lib Dems failed, with Sir Ed Davey’s party tightening its grip on the authority.
Conservative councillor Alan Jarrett, who will no longer lead Medway after Labour seized control, said Downing Street must “get their act together on a number of fronts”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the party leaders must “get a grip of the economy”, be clearer about housing targets and improve access to GPs.
– The Tories have lost nine councils and suffered a net loss of 190 councillors.
– Labour has gained control of three councils and added 138 councillors.
– The Liberal Democrats have gained one council and 59 councillors.
– The Green Party has gained 13 councillors.
Sir Keir’s party expects to have its best local election results since 1997, with an equivalent vote share lead of at least 8% over the Tories, which could result in a majority Labour government if repeated at a Westminster contest.
Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator, said: “These results have been a disaster for Rishi Sunak as voters punish him for the Tories’ failure.”
Labour claimed that, based on the aggregate vote, the party would have won the Westminster constituencies of Hartlepool, Stevenage, Dudley South, Ipswich, West Bromwich East, Great Grimsby and Aldershot, which has been held by the Tories since its creation as a seat in 1918.
Labour’s Chris Cooke won the battle to become mayor of Middlesbrough, defeating the independent incumbent Andy Preston with a swing of almost 20%.
He said: “We are exceeding all expectations. We have delivered a hammer blow to the Conservative Party in the blue wall ahead of next year’s general election.”
But the elections were branded a “dark day for British democracy” by campaigners opposed to the introduction of photo ID, who claimed thousands of people had been denied their right to vote.
The contests were the first to be fought under new rules requiring voters to carry photographic ID, and the elections watchdog said some people were turned away from polling stations.
An Electoral Commission spokesman said: “We already know from our research that the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and that some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result.
“It will be essential to understand the extent of this impact, and the reasons behind it, before a final view can be taken on how the policy has worked in practice and what can be learned for future elections.”
Tom Brake of Unlock Democracy, who is leading a coalition of groups opposed to the policy including the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK and Open Britain, said: “Today has been a dark day for British democracy.
“Reports from all over the country confirm our very worst fears of the impact of the disastrous policy which has been made worse by the shambolic way it has been introduced.”
Association of Electoral Administrators chief executive Peter Stanyon said there had been “many anecdotal reports” of people being unable to vote but “it is still too early to gauge how introducing voter ID has gone”.