Boris Johnson has won his second term as London mayor, defeating challenger Ken Livingstone in a battle that proved far closer than pollsters had anticipated. The loose-lipped incumbent, known for his bumbling as much as his politics, did not secure an outright majority during the first round of voting. But accounting for second preference votes, he earned 1,054,811 votes to Livingstone’s 992,273. That’s a margin of victory of just 3%—about half what had been expected.
It was a vitriolic campaign that saw Johnson shout expletives at Livingstone in an elevator following the first live debate. But both the winner and the loser were on their best behavior after the results were announced. In his victory speech, Johnson puffed up his achievements as mayor—that one of the subway lines now moves three mph faster than when he took office, that the murder rate is down 25% in four years. And he promised a “good deal for Londoners from the government that will help us deliver prosperity for everybody in this city.” Livingstone—as acerbic as he is sour-faced—used his concession speech to take a swipe at David Cameron. “I don’t know if the Prime Minister is still watching,” Livingstone said. “But I hope the closeness of the election didn’t give him indigestion over his dinner.”
For Cameron and his Conservatives, the stomach aches likely started much, much earlier. That’s because Johnson’s victory was an exception to the rule, as voters across the country punished Tory politicians in local council elections. The final tally showed that nationwide Conservatives lost 405 councillors and control of 12 councils. Labour, who endured a major beating during the general elections in 2010, picked up 823 seats, and won control of 32 more councils including Cardiff, the Welsh capital, and Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city. A Tory-Lib Dem alliance had held that council since 2004. Nationally, Labour claimed 38% of the vote compared to 31% for the Conservatives.
“[David Cameron] has been sent a message by the people of this country,” Labour leader Ed Miliband said in Birmingham. “From Carlisle to Southampton people have said, ‘We don’t like what this government is doing. This government promised change and they’ve made things worse not better.’”
And that government includes Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners. It absorbed heavy casualties, losing 336 councilors and one of the six councils it controlled. Although the party’s share of the vote remained at 16%, its number of councillors dropped below 3,000 for the first time since the party formed in 1998. In one ward in Edinburgh, a candidate dressed as a penguin, who stood under the name Professor Pongoo, won more first preference votes than the Lib Dem candidate.
As austerity bites and the euro zone crisis shakes voter confidence in their leaders, holding power suddenly seems like a serious handicap. Dissatisfied, disaffected and eager for change, voters are poised to unseat incumbents during national elections on May 6. In France polls suggest Socialist challenger François Hollande will defeat Nicolas Sarkozy by around 6%. And in Greece polls suggest that PASOK, the center-left party which came to power in 2009 with almost 44% of all votes, will only manage to take between 14 and 19% this time. Britain may not use the euro, but it isn’t immune to the continent-wide malaise. “These are difficult times and there aren’t easy answers,” David Cameron said of his party’s poor showing this evening. “What we have to do is take the difficult decisions to deal with the debt, deficit and broken economy that we’ve inherited and we will go on making those decisions and we’ve got to do the right thing for our country.”
Cameron, who looked visibly downcast when speaking with the press today, had to absorb losses in West Oxfordshire—a tony area where locals bleed Tory Blue. Witney, the Prime Minister’s home constituency, is located there. Even so, Labour claimed three wards from the Conservatives, including Chipping Norton, which the Guardian described as a small town where Cameron’s “moneyed set of occasionally troublesome pals clusters” (they include Rebekah Brooks—the former chief executive of News International—who rode the horse she borrowed from London’s Met Police nearby). Those losses hurt. But Labour’s resurgence in the south hints at larger, more frightening shifts for the Conservatives. Labour unexpectedly took control of several councils including Thurrock and Harlow, where it has no MPs. Miliband hopes to build on the momentum: “The days of southern discomfort are over,” he said. Compared with 2008, when these seats were last contested, Labour are up 12% in the south, while the Tories are down 8%.
Labour weren’t the only benefactors’ of the Tory stumble. Conservative MP Gary Streeter believes his party lost control of the council in Plymouth because some Tory voters ran into the arms of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to leave the European Union. That party hasn’t traditionally made an impact at the polls. But they averaged 12% of the vote where they contested seats. “We [the Tories] need to work out a strategy, certainly in the west country, for dealing with the issue of traditional voters shuffling off and voting UKIP because they don’t think our leadership is Conservative enough,” Streeter said. “The UKIP vote is not just about Europe.”
He’s not the only Tory taking jibes at David Cameron. Stewart Jackson, a Conservative MP from Peterborough, told BBC Radio 4 that the Prime Minister should remind himself of the party’s roots. “He needs to focus on bread and butter issues like jobs and mortgages and public services and, above all, to develop a clear route map to growth,” he said, “and stop fixating on the agenda of a liberal clique around him and barmy policies such as Lords reform and gay marriage, which people either don’t like or don’t care about.” There’s growing frustration, he says, that leadership ignore the party’s more conservative factions. That might explain the recent outburst by uber-conservative Conservative Nadine Dorries. In an interview with the BBC, she described the Prime Minister and chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne as “two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”
Of course, there’s at least one posh boy bucking the trend. Boris Johnson, the Eton-educated mayor of London, scraped out a win on a night the Tories lost steam. Not being tied down to a coalition helps: he can define and articulate a conservative vision on strictly conservative terms. But his appeal stretches far beyond that. In a mayoral race personality can matter almost as much as politics—and he’s got it in spades.
His personal popularity has consistently outstripped that of his party, and in recent days he made an effort to distance himself from it. As George Osborne drones on about austerity, Johnson has pledged to push back to get more money for Londoners. “People say, ‘am I different from the Conservative Party, am I different from the Government?’” Johnson said in the final days of his campaign. “The answer is, well yes, in the sense that I will go in to bat for London, I will go in to fight for London budgets. I don’t care if plaster comes off the ceiling in the Treasury provided we get the funding we need.”
William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.