Farage Nigel Eating CakesNow that the papers have had time to properly consider yesterday’s local election results, something stands out from their coverage: the Conservatives emerge relatively unbruised.

Sure, there are the stories about Tory MPs applying pressure on David Cameron to do a deal with Nigel Farage. But they’re merely tepid when compared to the equatorial heat Ed Miliband is under. The main headline of the Daily Mail just about sums it up: “The savaging of Red Ed.” Several front-pages alight on Labour’s failures

Anyone who wants the Tories to triumph at next year’s General Election will take heart. An Opposition fighting amongst itself is, of course, a weaker Opposition. Besides, yesterday’s results demonstrated, more than any abstractions can, that UKIP is a phenomenon that doesn’t just split the Right.

But the comparison with Labour’s woes, and the media’s heavy coverage of them, shouldn’t distract us: this was still a concerning set of results for the Tories. The pollsters, such as Lord Ashcroft on this site and Peter Kellner in the Times (£), have already set about surveying the new and harsher political landscape. Could UKIP supporters ever vote Conservative? How many might do so in the election? What do they make of Cameron? And so on. I shall leave the answers to the experts, but the fact that these questions need asking tells its own story.

And here’s the thing: that story threatens to become the story in the run-up to next May. Cameron may have (rightly) rebuffed those calling for a(n improbable-bordering-on-impossible) pact with Farage. He may, as I’m told, be determined not to take a harder line on Europe and immigration, as he thinks his current line is already hard enough. But it’s likely that he will have to make these same reassurances again and often. UKIP’s electoral success is such that it will frame much of the political debate between now and then. So much will be contained within its borders.

The very real prospect of another Hung Parliament only strengthens this effect. The next General Election was always going to be distinguished by an appreciation, lacking at the last, that there may be no outright victor. Now UKIP’s louring presence will turn that appreciation into an obsession. It’s likely that the parties’ positions in relation to each other will be probed almost as extensively as their positions in relation to the voters. Another set of questions will hold sway. Would you do a deal over this? Is this one of your red-lines? Do you agree with Nigel?

As I’ve written plenty of times before – particularly in this Times article (£) – Cameron is, like most political leaders, at his best when optimistic. But to accomplish that he’ll have to go against the grain of a politics that’s about trade-offs and deals and disagreements. That’s the real challenge after yesterday.