Is Ukip about to turn England into a four-party state?

England could truly start to look like a four-party electoral system today, as much of the country goes to the polls in local elections.

A surge in Ukip's support, combined with an expected bloodbath for the Liberal Democrats, could leave the eurosceptic party with more seats than the coalition partner.

The Sun newspaper withheld its support from the Conservatives today and upset Tory HQ by listing Ukip as one of the 'big four'.

Nearly 10,000 candidates are fighting for seats at 34 English top-tier counties and unitary authorities, as well as the Isle of Anglesey council in Wales.

There will also be a by-election in South Shields, David Miliband's old seat.

It is safe Labour territory, but even here Ukip is expected to capitalise on strong support among working class voters in the C2DE category to come in second, ahead of the Conservatives.

The party could even secure up to 40% of the share of the vote in the seat.

Ukip has chalked up three local by-election gains in principle authorities from the Tories since February, after making no gains at all for two years.

Combined with a growing activist base and a sense of momentum from extensive press coverage, the party is expecting to secure some of its most impressive results since it was formed after the signing of the Maastricht treaty.

Ladbrokes have Ukip council seat gains of 100 or more the 5/4 favourite.

In a bid to head off Ukip's threat, David Cameron yesterday promised legal safeguards before the end of the current parliament to guarantee a referendum on the EU after the general election.

That set up the prospect of a dramatic Commons vote which would split the coalition down the middle and force Labour to commit to a firm EU policy.

Even if Ukip wins very few seats, it could split the Tory vote and prevent the party securing its own target seats.

Cameron refused to even mention Ukip by name yesterday in a final round of interviews before voting, although William Hague joined colleague ken Clarke in a harsh attack on the minority party, saying it was "clown-like".

Nigel Farage said he was relaxed about the onslaught of criticism he has received from the press and political parties.

"Keep it coming boys," he said

"Every time we get an insult from a senior Tory, it helps us."

But the Ukip leader had a bad day himself yesterday.

Worcester candidate Dick Delingpole sparked anger after photoshopping his face onto an image of Hitler addressing a crowd, in what appeared to be a strange prank.

Farage's campaign bus stopped in a disabled bay and the Ukip leader was photographed strolling off it.

He then said he believed that a Ukip candidate snapped doing a Nazi salute was in fact trying to grab a camera while "imitating a pot plant".

Polls opened at 07:00 BST and close at 22:00 BST tonight

Early results from Staffordshire, East Sussex, Dorset, Hampshire and Lincolnshire will give some indication of how the main parties are doing.

The Tories will be braced to lose the four counties they won last time. If they manage to keep Staffordshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire – or even limit their losses to these areas – it will be considered a good showing for the governing party.

Labour will be targeting Cumbria and Warwickshire and trying to become the biggest party in Northamptonshire. 

The Liberal Democrats are braced for a bad night. Even one council or mayoralty win would be considered a cause for celebration.

Major losses for the Liberal Democrats could see Ukip emerge with more councillors than the coalition partner.

The eurosceptic party will be hoping for gains of over 200.

The first full council result is likely to come from Lincolnshire at around 02.30 BST tomorrow morning, but most results will come in during office hours on Friday.