David Cameron’s coalition today faces its most dangerous moment, as voters go to the polls in most parts of Britain and deliver what is expected to be an emphatic No to changing the Westminster voting system.

A decisive No vote in the alternative vote referendum would deliver a serious blow to the Liberal Democrats and exacerbate political tensions with the Tories.

A Guardian/ICM poll suggests the No campaign has a lead of 68:32 over those campaigning for a Yes to AV, confirming other recent surveys that have showed the No vote hardening as the referendum approaches.

Meanwhile, both coalition parties are expected to suffer heavy losses in local elections in England, with Labour widely tipped to gain at least 1,000 council seats and to roll back Lib Dem advances in northern cities.

However, “Super Thursday” is unlikely to be an unbridled success for Ed Miliband, Labour leader, in spite of his party’s expected town hall gains: advances in England could be offset by defeat at the hands of the Scottish National party in Holyrood.

Mr Miliband has also campaigned for a Yes vote in the AV referendum and looks likely to end up on the losing side. Half of his Labour MPs oppose voting reform and those supporting AV conceded defeat on Wednesday.

“We’re going to get hammered,” said one veteran Labour campaigner for electoral reform. “It has turned into a referendum on Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and the Yes campaign never got going.”

Mr Miliband insisted a Yes vote was still possible. He is not expected to take No as a final answer if he does end up on the losing side.

The Labour leader wants to retain a commitment to electoral reform in his party’s next manifesto, leaving open the possibility of a pact with the Lib Dems, the party most enthusiastic about voting reform.

Heavyweights such as Alan Johnson, former home secretary, and David Miliband, former foreign secretary, will also argue that Labour must maintain its support for electoral reform. Tory and Labour opponents of AV will argue that a decisive No vote will settle the issue for a generation. Winning parliamentary approval for another referendum – with Tory MPs and a majority of Labour MPs opposed – seems a distant prospect.

The biggest loser in the AV campaign will be Mr Clegg, whose party was hoping to secure electoral reform as the biggest prize from the coalition deal that put the Lib Dems in power last year with the Tories.

The campaign soured relations at the top of the coalition, with Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem energy secretary, accusing Mr Cameron this week at cabinet of sanctioning a dirty tricks campaign to gain a No vote.

Mr Clegg admitted on Wednesday his party faced setbacks in polls across the country. “These are tough times to be fighting local elections,” he said.

Mr Huhne and Tim Farron, Lib Dem party president, are suspected in party circles of positioning themselves for a future leadership bid, but few expect a significant challenge to Mr Clegg in the short term.

Mr Clegg urged his parliamentary party at a meeting on Tuesday to grit its teeth and to focus on the long term.

He has talked of the elections marking “a new phase” in the coalition, where the Lib Dems will in future speak more freely about policy disputes with the Conservatives, asserting their independence inside the coalition.

Mr Cameron’s relief at the likely No vote in the referendum will be tempered by an acknowledgement that his backing for an aggressive campaign has destabilised his government.

One Conservative MP whose local council is being targeted by Labour said that he had been surprised to find the Tory vote was holding up, in spite of the coalition’s deficit-cutting plan. “It is quite gratifying,” the MP said. “My sense is that it is 50:50.”

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