LONDON An election drubbing for the Liberal Democrats on Friday has exposed the depth of feeling against its uneasy alliance with the Conservatives and put pressure on leader Nick Clegg to take a more independent line.
Counting in "Super Thursday" elections for local councils around Britain was continuing on Friday but one thing was clear: the junior coalition partner, long shut out of power nationally by the Conservatives and Labour, was the big loser.
While the Lib Dems were the fall guys for unprecedented public spending cuts to rein in a record budget deficit, support for Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives held up.
"Where there are real anxieties about the deficit-reduction plans that we are having to put in place, we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame," a grim-faced Clegg said on Friday.
The result follows the pattern in other coalition-run countries, where the centre-right party tends to get the credit while the smaller party carries the can, said Tim Bale, politics professor at the University of Sussex.
Britain has no recent experience of coalitions -- this is the first since World War Two.
"It could be a voteless (economic) recovery for the Lib Dems," Bale said.
"Strategically they have made a very bad mistake by going into coalition. This could be a fatal embrace."
Questions were growing over whether the coalition would even be able to stick together until the next election due in 2015, a worry for markets which want to see a stable government push through cuts.
For now, the Lib Dems must struggle to assert their identity and hope they get a share of credit if the austerity measures pay off and a faltering economic recovery gains traction.
DUTY, NOT LOVE
The Lib Dem mood is likely to sour further when results of a referendum on electoral reform are confirmed later on Friday.
All indications are that the Britons will reject the move to the Alternative Vote (AV) system more favourable to smaller parties like the Lib Dems.
Electoral reform had been the bait that first lured the Lib Dems into partnership with a party that had long been their ideological rival, but the partners remained on opposite sides of the debate and engaged in bitter public slanging matches ahead of the vote.
Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown criticised prime minister Cameron for allowing personalised attacks on Clegg in the lead-up to the referendum and elections, but said that was not a reason to scupper the coalition.
"We have a job to do. We're not doing because we love the Conservatives, we're doing it because we believe it's right for our country," he told BBC Radio 4.
Treasury minister and senior Lib Dem Danny Alexander said the coalition would stick to its economic plan and that Clegg would lead the party into the 2015 election, brushing aside scattered calls for a new leader from local politicians.
Analysts saw no serious challenge to Clegg as party leader and said instead the Lib Dems were likely to be more vocal in what Clegg has called the second phase of the coalition.
"That is something that the Lib Dems will have to do more of to show that they are actually making a difference in the coalition, because they have to try and attract back lost votes," said Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British politics at Nottingham University.
"But that of course will create more tensions within the coalition, more battles, more resentment within the Conservative Party .... It will put pressure on Cameron to give the Lib Dems more in terms of policy concessions," he added.
The Lib Dems' woes and coalition tensions could prompt some on the right of the Conservative party who dislike the alliance to push for an early election to try to secure a majority to govern alone.
Bale, of the University of Sussex, said that would be short-sighted.
"They still can't win much support in northern England or Scotland and it's difficult to see they would do much better than in 2010."
"I think they will play the long game." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)