Clare Dean finds that the Tories in the shires have some consolation at the local level after the Labour landslide
While newspaper headlines screamed of a Labour landslide, Tories in the shire counties were quietly celebrating.
For despite their party's disastrous performance in the general election, they swept to power in many of their former local government heartlands, recapturing authorities lost to the Liberal Democrats four years ago and gaining more seats than Labour.
The local government elections - which also took place last Thursday - saw them take Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Surrey and West Sussex, in part because the creation of new unitary authorities removed a swathe of traditional Labour seats from shire counties.
The Tories are likely to gain Essex next April when the two unitary authorities of Southend and Thurrock are set up. They hung on to Buckinghamshire, previously their lone shire authority, winning four extra seats.
Throughout the country, they gained more than 160 seats in the shires - almost three times as many as Labour - and now hold almost 1,000 seats in the counties.
Paul White, leader of the Tory group on the Local Government Association, said: "A lot of the education map is now Conservative. I don't think we will work well with the new Government. Last time it was appalling. In Essex, I remember, we had no capital programme and the largest class size. People forget how bad it was in 1979."
Labour won Cumbria and Cheshire, where no party had previously been in overall control and came within one seat of taking Warwickshire, which remains hung.
The Liberal Democrats, who pushed the Tories into third place in local government a year ago, were unable to match their success this time. Apart from losing Hampshire to the Tories, they lost overall control of Cornwall, East Sussex and Wiltshire and more than 160 seats.
In the unitary elections, Labour took a dozen authorities, the Conservatives two and the Liberal Democrats three. Four authorities - Medway Towns, Peterborough, Southend and Windsor - have no party in overall control.
The Tories now have their sights on the chairs of two key committees of the new Local Government Association, which represents council interests at national level - education and social services.
With Edward Lister, leader of the flagship Tory London borough of Wandsworth, already selected as Conservative education spokes-man on the LGA this would certainly pose an interesting challenge for David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary.
Graham Lane, the current Labour education committee chair, is refusing to consider such a prospect, however, and instead is talking confidently of a Labour majority on the association.
It remains the strongest party in local government because of its hold on the metropolitan authorities and London.
Across the country Labour now controls 216 local authorities, the Conservatives 22, Liberal Democrats 51, Independents 4, Plaid Cymru 1, and there are 129 with no overall control.
This week Mr Lane urged the new Government to change the law to make it a duty for local authorities to raise standards in schools.
He pledged to put councils at the heart of the campaign to improve quality, standards and levels of literacy and urged Mr Blunkett to give councils the power to intervene to help save schools that were in danger of failing.
"We had constructive dialogue with the last government. Now we're looking forward to joint action," said Mr Lane. "We can work with this Government and we look forward to working with it."
For the time being, then, it appears the civil war between local and central government - an ever-present feature of the Tory administration which peaked at John Patten's time as education secretary - is over.
In truth, though, relationships with Robin Squire, the former schools minister, who lost his seat in the general election, and Gillian Shephard, the ex-education and employment secretary, were always cordial. Local authorities worked closely with both of them during their tenure at Sanctuary Buildings - although they publicly and privately disagreed with many of their policies, particularly on nursery vouchers.
Mr Lane now talks of a new era of partnership between central and local government, and Labour has already put local education authorities at the heart of its drive for higher standards in schools.
"A consensus on how to improve our schools is now within our reach," said Mr Lane. "Together with parents and schools, education authorities and the new Government can give Britain an education system to be proud of.
"Education authorities are totally committed to improving standards. Nothing is being ruled out. They will revisit the best of the past and find innovative new ways of helping all children to succeed."
THE NEW SHAPE OF BRITAIN'S LOCAL AUTHORITIES
County Councils: Bedfordshire: C gain from NOC, Buckinghamshire: C no change Cambridgeshire: C gain from NOC, Cheshire: Lab gain from NOC Cornwall: LD lose to NOC, Cumbria: Lab gain from NOC
Derbyshire: Lab no change, Devon: NOC no change Dorset: NOC no change, Durham: Lab no change East Sussex: LD lose to NOC, Essex: NOC no change
Gloucestershire: NOC no change, Hampshire: C gain from LD Hertfordshire: NOC no change, Kent: C gain from NOC Lancashire: Lab no change, Leicestershire: NOC no change
Lincolnshire: C gain from NOC, Norfolk: NOC no change North Yorkshire: NOC no change, Northamptonshire: Lab no change Northumberland: Lab no change, Nottinghamshire: Lab no change
Oxfordshire: NOC no change, Shropshire: NOC no change Somerset: LD no change, Staffordshire: Lab no change Suffolk: NOC no change, Surrey: C gain from NOC
Warwickshire: NOC no change, West Sussex: C gain from NOC Wiltshire: LD lose to NOC, Worcestershire: NOC Unitary authorities*:
Blackburn: Lab, Blackpool: Lab, Bracknell Forest: C Bristol: Lab no change, Halton: Lab Herefordshire: LD, Kingston-upon-Hull: Lab no change
Medway Towns: NOC, Newbury: LD, Nottingham: Lab Peterborough: NOC, Plymouth: Lab Reading: Lab, Slough: Lab, Southend-on-Sea: NOC
Thurrock: Lab, Torbay: LD, Warrington: Lab Windsor and MaidenheadRoyal: NOC, Wokingham: C, Wrekin: Lab
Bristol and Kingston-upon-Hull became unitary authorities in 1996. The others will be officially set up next April.
(NOC = no overalzl control)