LONDON (Reuters) -British voters punished the Liberal Democrats for their role in a deficit-cutting government Friday, deserting the party in local elections and almost certainly rejecting its efforts to reform the electoral system.
Early results from local elections in England showed support for the center-left Lib Dems, the junior coalition partner, had plunged. Backing for the larger Conservatives held up well.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) made big gains in elections to a devolved assembly, which could pave the way for a future referendum on Scottish independence to end a 300-year union with England.
“We have taken a real knock last night and we will need to learn the lessons from what we heard on the doorstep,” a Htired-looking Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, told reporters.
“In those parts of the country .... where there are real anxieties about the deficit-reduction plans that we are having to put in place, we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame.”
The government has embarked on a program of swinging public spending cuts to rein in a record budget deficit.
A poor showing for the Lib Dems has prompted some analysts to ask if the coalition could split and derail the austerity program, but Lib Dem and Conservative ministers dismissed the idea.
“Parties in government, in the mid-term, especially when you are having to make very difficult decisions, do suffer in local elections,” Treasury minister and senior Lib Dem Danny Alexander told Sky News television.
The Lib Dems’ popularity has plummeted since they entered government with the center-right Conservatives last year and created Britain’s first coalition since World War Two.
This may spur challenges to party leader Nick Clegg, but one senior Lib Dem, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, told the BBC now was not the time to look for a new leader.
Ill-tempered spats between the Lib Dems and Conservatives in the run-up to Thursday’s votes could make the work of cabinet more difficult. Many Lib Dems feel the Conservatives have made them the scapegoat for the austerity cuts.
Lib Dem ministers have also angrily accused their Conservative partners of underhand tactics in campaigning for a referendum Thursday to change Britain’s voting system, an issue the Lib Dems hold dear, but the Conservatives oppose.
However, few expect either partner to force a split and risk propelling the opposition Labor party into government.
“The prime minister had several occasions .... to dissociate himself from a campaign whose primary purpose was to attack, in a vicious personalized (way). He did not do so,” said former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.
“The reason for the coalition remains. This is about the national interest. We have a job to do .... There’s no question of ending the coalition,” he told the BBC.
In the first nationwide referendum for more than 30 years, Britons were asked whether they wanted to replace the winner-takes-all method of electing members of parliament with an “alternative vote” system in which they could rank candidates in order of preference.
The referendum was the main prize secured by the Lib Dems when they entered government after decades in the political wilderness, hoping to erode a system that consistently favors the two big parties. But opinion polls before the vote suggested a clear win for the ‘No’ camp.
In Scotland, the BBC predicted the SNP would win 65 of the regional assembly’s 129 seats, a slim majority that would allow it to push through plans for a referendum on Scottish independence.
Party leader Alex Salmond has said he will delay such a move until later in a new five-year term.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Keith Weir; Editing by Kevin Liffey