Photo Gallery: UKIP sweeps into Norfolk in county council elections
- Credit: Archant
The political landscape of Norfolk has been completely reshaped in the space of just 24 hours after the UK Independence Party's stunning election success meant no party has overall control of County Hall.
The authority is in limbo, with parties set to meet over the coming days to thrash out who will run the county council and what alliances, if any, are formed.
While the Conservatives have 40 divisions, their majority of 34 was whittled away, while UKIP triumphed in 15 divisions, catapulting them into the role of opposition party. It was a result which even UKIP members described as 'unbelievable' and could cast a question mark over projects such as the incinerator at King's Lynn.
There was just a single vote between UKIP and Labour in Thetford West, but it was enough to push UKIP one division ahead of Labour to become the second largest party. UKIP took three significant Conservative scalps – cabinet members Graham Plant, Barry Stone and Ann Steward.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed a 'sea change' in British politics as they gained 131 council seats across the country – far more than predicted – while the Conservatives lost 340 councillors and control of 10 councils. Labour gained 268 seats, while the Lib Dems lost 110.
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As well as Norfolk, Tories lost control of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire due to the UKIP surge. In Suffolk, the Conservatives retained control with a majority of three.
And, with the County Hall Conservative group due to meet this morning, there is speculation current Tory group leader Bill Borrett could face a challenge for his leadership.
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On a remarkable day, UKIP took almost 23.5pc of the vote, compared to the Conservatives 32.6pc.
With a turnout of 32.14pc, the Liberal Democrats, who gained a seat, took just shy of 11pc of the vote, the Greens 6.55pc and independents 3.27pc.
UKIP will have to meet in the days ahead to pick a leader, but Michael Baker, who won in Holt, admitted the success had taken the party by surprise.
He said: 'I don't think it would come as any surprise that, during the campaign and before voting, we thought we would get three or four. If we got five we would have arrived on the scene. We got 15. We're official opposition. That's unbelievable.'
The most likely scenario now would appear to be that the Conservatives will run the authority as a minority administration, but it is unclear how willing UKIP would be to work with them, or other groups.
Mr Baker said: 'What we have obviously got to do now, as a group, is discuss the overall situation and strategy. I don't think we will be being bounced into any meetings organised by the ruling group.
'I think we will talk to them in due course when we have had our own internal meetings. We might talk to others as well. We might talk to no-one.
'We may let the Conservative administration go on on a minority basis which will clip their wings a bit. They will have to make decisions that we are all happy with.'
Mr Borrett said his party had fared about as well as he'd expected, but was shocked it was UKIP, rather than Labour, who had inflicted the damage, taking 11 divisions from the Tories.
He said: 'UKIP have had a very strong result and it's not what I expected. All credit to them - they are now the second largest party on Norfolk County Council.
'We now need a bit of time for reflection. All the various political groups will be meeting to discuss who will lead them. 'There needs to be discussions with them and when that has happened we need to talk about what happens with no party in overall control. Within the next week we should have a clearer idea of what's going to happen.'
While the most likely scenario would seem to be a minority Conservative administration, with the Conservative group meeting at County Hall this morning, Mr Borrett acknowledged he might not be leader come the end of the weekend.
He said: 'I need to talk to the Conservative group. We've got 40 Conservative councillors and a lot of them have never been county councillors before. I need to find out what they want, what they think. We have an election today morning so I may not be leader of the Conservative group.'
In terms of alliances and partnerships, if he does remain leader, Mr Borrett said: 'What I would say is I don't want to rule anything out and what we are all interested in is the right thing for Norfolk, so hopefully there will be a lot of common ground.'
The Liberal Democrats, perhaps surprisingly, ended up gaining a division, up from nine to 10. But departing leader Mike Brindle, who did not stand in this election and whose Thetford West division proved so decisive, issued a warning.
He said: 'We are of course concerned about the overall make-up of the county and the way that stability may be lost. UKIP have done fantastically well, with a great number of untried candidates and I think when they get to County Hall they will have two problems.
'One is a lack of experience and the other is that they don't agree on any policy except the fundamental policy of removal from Europe which is not something that Norfolk can do. It can't float away from Europe on its own.'
George Nobbs, leader of the Labour group, conceded his party had not done as well as hoped. He said: 'Where do we go from here? Obviously the Conservatives lost control and people have not given control to anybody else. We have to have a council and an administration so it's up to us to work with each other as best we can.
'The things Labour wants is better schools, better infrastructure and better jobs and we will work with anybody who can help us achieve that.'
And Richard Bearman, leader of the Green group, said he hoped the shift in the balance of power might help scupper the incinerator at King's Lynn.
he said: 'No longer can one party make all the big decisions on its own without proper debate and scrutiny. Green councillors will play a constructive role in working with other parties to create a more democratic county.
'Specifically there's the immediate prospect of forcing a vote in full council with the potential to stop the development of the Kings Lynn incinerator.'