The Tories were braced for a “really, really tough night” as counting was under way in the the English local council elections.

Amid voter anger at the continuing wrangling over Brexit, the Brexit Minister James Cleverly suggested he would be relieved if the losses could be held to 500 council seats.

“Nine years into government you would expect us to be losing lots and lots of seats,” he told the BBC.

“It would be unrealistic for me to pretend after nine years in government and Brexit as a backdrop that this is going to be anything other than a really, really tough night for us.

Prime Minister Theresa May (David Mirzoeff/PA)
Prime Minister Theresa May (David Mirzoeff/PA)

“If it was 500 (seats lost), rather than 1,000, I would be happy with that.”

With some analysts predicting losses of 800 or more for the Tories, the results are likely to pile pressure on Theresa May at a time she is embroiled in a row over the sacking of ex-defence secretary Gavin Williamson.

The senior Tory Brexiteer MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said voters overwhelmingly believed that she had “lost the plot” and that the time had come for a change of leader.

“She still has a degree of personal sympathy but I think people think it is time for a change. They can see that she has lost the plot. They can see she is not in control of events,” he told the BBC.

“Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her to move on.”

In early results, the Conservatives lost control of Basildon and Southend in Essex but hung on in the bellwether council of Swindon.

With Labour also struggling with divisions over over Brexit, senior figures were playing down the prospect of making significant gains at the expense of the Conservatives.

Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner suggested they would be satisfied if they could take back the 200 seats they lost the last time these seats were fought in 2015.

“These elections will be a test of the Conservative Party far more than a test of the Labour Party or any of the other parties,” he told the BBC.

Local elections
The counting of ballots in Bath and North East Somerset Council (Rod Minchin/PA)

“I would like us to come back to where we should have been the last time round.”

However the party suffered an early setback with the loss of control of Hartlepool.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats, who lost heavily in 2015, were buoyant, with deputy leader Jo Swinson predicting three-figure gains.

“Out and about across the country, the mood has been positive. If we can get into the triple figures of gains that would be a really, really good night,” she said.

“That would be part of that Lib Dem fightback that is happening.”