Polls to deliver thrills and spills
Election night drama can be expected after voters go to the polls on Thursday in 35 council contests that will be watched keenly just two years before David Cameron has to go to the country.
The eligible electorates of the 34 English top-tier counties and unitary authorities, plus the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, account for nearly 40% of the UK total. Nearly 10,000 candidates are battling for seats. After polls close at 10pm on Thursday, early results that should indicate how the parties are doing are expected to come from Staffordshire, East Sussex, Dorset, Hampshire and Lincolnshire.
Although some districts of Staffordshire will only be counting during the day on Friday, Cannock Chase, Tamworth and South Staffordshire are all declaring overnight, with results due around 1.30am on Friday. Labour currently has only three councillors at Tory-held Staffordshire County Council but that clearly understates its position as the party was in control there until the 2009 polls when the Tories benefited from discontent with Gordon Brown's government.
The early results may show whether Labour is on track to take the council back. The final outcome in Staffordshire is expected to be known late on Friday afternoon. In Tory-controlled East Sussex, Eastbourne and Hastings are counting overnight while other districts will do so during the day on Friday. Results from Eastbourne, expected around 1am on Friday, could indicate how the Liberal Democrats are going to fare against their Conservative coalition Government partners. The results from Hastings, due around 2am, should help show how well Labour is likely to do overall against the Tories. The final outcome for East Sussex is due before lunchtime on Friday.
Results are expected to start coming through from Tory-held Dorset and Hampshire from around 1.30am on Friday. These will be watched closely for indications of the likely fortunes of the Tories against their Lib Dem coalition partners, the size of any swing to Labour and the progress being made by Ukip.
The early Hampshire results should include Eastleigh, where Lib Dems held their seat and Ukip beat the Tories for second place in the recent parliamentary by-election. Ukip is fielding more than 1,700 candidates in the polls, only just behind Lib Dems. The first full council result is likely to come from Lincolnshire at around 2.30am on Friday. The Tories have had control of the council since 1997. Retaining it or losing it may act as a weathervane for the party's fortunes in what is likely to be a difficult night for the Conservatives.
News is also expected in the early hours of Friday from contests North and South of the Tyne - not in council polls but in the South Shields parliamentary by-election (expected declaration around 1.30am) and the North Tyneside mayoral election (perhaps 3am). The battle for the Labour stronghold of South Shields was triggered by former Cabinet Minister David Miliband's decision to step down as MP to become head of the International Rescue Committee in New York.
In North Tyneside, Tory incumbent Linda Arkley is fighting to retain the mayoralty against a strong challenge from Labour's Norma Redfearn. The only other candidate is Lib Dem John Appleby. Confirmation of the trends taking shape is likely to come with a flurry of full council results expected by around 4am - from Dorset, Essex, Hampshire and Somerset - followed within a couple of hours by Gloucestershire.
All are currently Conservative-controlled. In a Tory disaster scenario the party could lose its majorities on all of them. Lib Dems may stand a chance of victory in Somerset. Tory chiefs have stark memories of 1993 in the same part of the electoral cycle during their last term in government, when they were reduced to just one county council at Buckinghamshire. They may be saved from a repeat of such embarrassment only by the fact that Labour-leaning areas have been removed from some counties to become unitary authorities since then.
Friday morning will see a lull before full council results start coming from the remaining authorities. Keenly awaited results include: Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, where Labour is fighting to take control from Tories; Cumbria, Derbyshire and Northumberland, where Labour is aiming to win the councils from no overall control, and Cornwall, where Tories are currently the largest party but short of an overall majority. In addition, Conservative control may be threatened in Northamptonshire after Labour's landslide parliamentary by-election triumph at Corby in November. A result is also due on Friday afternoon in Doncaster's mayoral poll.