BRITAIN'S ruling coalition has sustained punishing losses in local elections, with final results showing the Conservatives and their partner Liberal Democrats giving up hundreds of seats in a stinging rebuke to the two-year-old government of Prime Minister David Cameron.
The results showed the opposition Labour Party gaining 823 seats - winning control of key cities including Birmingham and Cardiff - in what analysts saw as a protest against the Conservatives' tough austerity drive, the flagging economy, and a series of missteps that left voters questioning the competence of the government.
The Conservatives, however, won a major consolation prize - the re-election of London's eccentric mayor, Boris Johnson.
He defeated his Labour challenger, Ken Livingstone, who had formerly held the top job in Europe's largest city. The win further positions the gaffe-prone, blunt-talking Mr Johnson as a potential challenger to Mr Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives in the years ahead.
But elsewhere, the results amounted to a major setback for the coalition.
A beaming Ed Miliband, head of the Labour Party, revelled in the opposition's success, saying the local elections foreshadowed the national race in 2015. Seats on local councils are considered key to garnering votes in national elections.
''The battle to change Britain begins here,'' Mr Miliband said.
Voters also showed surprisingly strong support for the right-wing Independence Party, which campaigned on a platform that includes having Britain withdraw from the European Union. The party's strong showing could amount to a wake-up call for Mr Cameron, seen as a moderate reformer who has attempted to shift the Conservatives closer to the political centre.
The coalition's junior partners, the Liberal Democrats, continued to experience a major unwinding of support since their decision to join the Conservatives in government two years ago, with the number of elected local councillors from the party falling to a record low. Analysts said the bloodbath could have been far worse, pointing to even larger opposition landslides in local elections in the past. Still, Labour made unquestionably strong gains, and analysts said the biggest force working against the coalition remained the economy.
Britain fell back into recession in the first quarter of this year, bringing criticism from the opposition over the government's dogged attempt to continue cutting spending and the deficit in the midst of an economic downturn.