Humbled: Cameron shows Ukip respect after local election drubbing

David Cameron vowed to show Ukip a newfound respect today, after the party's unprecedented surge in the local elections gave the Conservatives a bloody nose.

The party rallied about 25% of the vote in wards where it stood, helping to unseat the Conservatives from strongholds like Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

In Witney, David Cameron's local area, Ukip split the right-wing vote, allowing Labour councillor Laura Price in with just ten more votes than the Ukip candidate.

The unprecedented Ukip performance was enough to trigger rumours about Nigel Farage's inclusion in 2015's expected leaders' debates.

"The people that vote for us are rejecting the establishment, and quite right too," the party leader said.

"I understand that completely – three parties, three frontbenches that look and sound the same, and made of people who've basically never had a job in the real world.

"But are they voting Ukip just to stick two fingers up and to scream very loudly, or are they
voting Ukip because we’re offering positive policy alternatives?"

Cameron adopted an altogether more respectful tone towards a party he had once branded as full of "fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists".

He said: "I think there are major lessons for the major political parties. For the Conservatives, I understand why some people who supported us before didn't support us again.

"It’s no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for.

"Of course they should be subject, and they will be subject to proper scrutiny of their policies and their plans.

"But we need to show respect for people who’ve taken the choice to support this party. And we’re going to work really hard to win them back."

The humiliating set of results from the Conservatives saw them lose most of the gains they made in 2009.

"It was unfortunate that what people saw at Westminster was more examples of patronage," Tory backbencher Sarah Wollaston said.

Education secretary Michael Gove warned Tory MPs not to turn the disappointing results into a reason to challenge Cameron's leadership, after recent weeks saw a rare sense of unity in  the Tory parliamentary party.

"With great respect to anyone – actually, with no respect – it's barmy," Gove said.

"The idea of changing the leader is bonkerooney."

Labour enjoyed some impressive gains but failed to muster the kind of momentum which would rid the party of its doubts about Ed Miliband's leadership.

"The biggest opponent we will face at the next election is the idea that no one has any real answers and there is nothing we can do to turn things around," Miliband said, in a line which was interpreted as a coded attack on Ukip.

"I passionately believe we can make a difference by making real lasting change on the big issues that people worry about.

"Our task between now and the general election is to make that case to the British people."

Nick Clegg's party faced a humiliating result in South Shields, where David Cameron's departure to New York triggered a by-election.

The party came seventh with only 352 votes, not far ahead of the Monster Raving Looney party.

Ukip came in second, proving it can pick up strong support in Labour seats and pushing the Tories into third place.

Labour retained the seat with 12,493 and sent new MP Emma Lewell-Buck, a descendent of the man who invented the lifeboat, to parliament.

Nick Clegg's party did relatively well in areas where it has sitting MPs, suggesting some of the worst predictions of the party's annihilation would not come true.

"The Liberal Democrats are on a journey. We're on a journey from a party of protest, to a party of government.

"And actually, the pattern that has emerged in the results shows very clearly that where we have MPs, where we have Liberal Democrats out on the doorstep, setting out our side of the story, communicating our message, we're holding our own and in some areas actually making gains."

A BBC projection highlighting how the results would look if they were repeated at a general election showed Labour would win 29% of the vote, compared to the Tories 25%.

Ukip would come in third on 23% and the Lib Dems fourth with 14%.