Supporters of electoral reform turned their fire on Nick Clegg yesterday after the public voted overwhelmingly to keep the first-past-the-post system, killing off the prospect of change for a generation.
The No campaign was on course for a stunning victory by almost 70% to 30% as the results of Thursday's historic referendum were announced last night. The gap was even larger than the 2-1 margin suggested by recent opinion polls.
In Northern Ireland around 680,000, or 55.8%, registered voters turned out to vote in the referendum.
The scale of the No camp's triumph compounded Mr Clegg's agony after the national share put Labour on 37%, the Conservatives on 35%, the Liberal Democrats on 15% and other parties on 13%.
A mixed set of results for Labour under its new leader Ed Miliband was overshadowed by a crushing double defeat for Mr Clegg.
As he bowed to pressure from Liberal Democrats to project the party's identity more clearly inside the coalition, Mr Clegg was blamed for the heavy defeat in the referendum on the alternative vote (AV).
Yes campaigners said the higher than expected turnout of more than 40% was due to people coming out to “kick Clegg”.
One prominent figure in the pro-reform movement said: “The flaw in our campaign was that it was Nick Clegg's referendum.
“The only thing that really made a difference in the campaign was when the No camp put out a picture of Nick Clegg on its literature. We underestimated the unpopularity of the Lib Dems.”
Clegg allies directed their fire at Labour, saying the only hope of |defeating the power and money of the Conservatives lay in Labour and Liberal Democrats joining forces.
They said Mr Miliband had “failed to deliver” his party, which was split down the middle on AV. Although some Liberal Democrats vowed to fight on for their holy grail of proportional representation, one Yes campaigner conceded: “The chance of reform has now gone for a generation.”
As the blame game intensified last night, allies of Mr Clegg said he could not be made the scapegoat for such a heavy defeat. “If it had been lost by a few points, you could have argued that he had made the difference,” one aide said. “You can't blame a 70-30 result on one person. ”
Mr Clegg, now at his lowest point since becoming Liberal Democrat leader in 2007, faced demands from a handful of councillors to resign. But there was no sign that any of the party's big beasts joining the call or challenging him for the leadership.
The Deputy Prime Minister admitted his party's council results were “very, very poor” and that it had taken a “real knock.” He said the Liberal Democrats had got the blame for the Government's deficit reduction programme, and that people feared a return to Thatcher-style cuts.
Mr Cameron dismissed speculation that the Tories might pull the plug on the coalition and call an early General Election. He insisted that he was committed to the coalition lasting until 2015 and was careful to praise the work of Liberal Democrat ministers.