LONDON — Britain went to the polls Thursday for a bizarre election in which the party likely to win the most seats is one that would prefer not to be running at all.
Three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, and almost two months after it was supposed to leave, it is participating in elections for the European Parliament, the E.U.’s legislative body. If the opinion polls are correct, arch-Euroskeptic Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party is on course to blow the competition out of the water.
Voting is staggered across the continent through Sunday, with results starting to trickle in Sunday night.
In Europe, all eyes are on whether the populist, nationalist parties do well — or whether the center holds. In the Netherlands, also voting Thursday, exit polls suggested a strong result for the center-left Labor Party, with the far-right seeing only a small gain.
In Britain, the vote is taking place amid frenetic speculation about when — not if — Prime Minister Theresa May will resign. Some British media reports suggested she might announce a timetable for her departure as soon as Friday.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, was asked Thursday who would be in 10 Downing Street when President Trump arrives for a state visit the first week of June.
“Theresa May will be prime minister to welcome him and rightly so,” he responded.
But that wouldn’t foreclose an earlier statement by May that she will step down by a certain date, or that she will step down immediately as Conservative Party leader and continue on as prime minister until her party picks a successor.
Either way, May’s fortunes will not be aided by the drubbing her party is expected to receive at the ballot box.
“I’m ashamed to admit I voted for the Brexit Party,” Bruce Horton-Gabell, a 41-year-old lawyer, said after exiting a polling station in southwest London on Thursday morning.
He said he voted to “remain” in the 2016 Brexit referendum and is normally a centrist voter — he once backed Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and admires former U.S. president Barack Obama. But Horton-Gabell said a “lack of leadership” from Britain’s two main parties on Brexit deterred him from voting for them.
“I was devastated when we voted to leave the E.U., but as somebody who does believe in democracy and believes in what this country can achieve, I felt it was important that we made the most of it and got on with it,” he said.
This election could see both anti-Brexit and pro-European forces doing well in Britain. But the pro-European voices are scattered across several parties, including the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and a new group called Change UK.
A recent YouGov poll had the Brexit Party at 37 percent, Liberal Democrats at 19, Labour at 13, Green at 12 and Conservatives at 7 percent. One of the striking things about the polls is how Britain’s two main parties — Labour and the Conservatives — are barely in contention.
Anti-establishment parties have tended to finish strong in these low-turnout elections that take place every five years. Last time, in 2014, Labour and the Conservatives came in a few points behind the Euroskeptic party Farage was then leading. But this time polls have Farage’s party beating their combined total.
Farage is a charismatic but divisive figure — he’s among the right-wing politicians who’ve been pelted with milkshakes on the campaign trail.
Over the course of the campaign, he has come under scrutiny over the source of his donations. The European Parliament said it would investigate allegations, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4, that Farage failed to declare more than $500,000 from British businessman Arron Banks in the year after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The money allegedly went to pay for Farage’s rent, a car lease and a security detail and driver. Farage has denied wrongdoing.
A Brexit Party triumph could be good news for Boris Johnson, a prominent Brexiteer and former foreign secretary who is leading in opinion polls to replace May.
Like Farage, Johnson has downplayed risks of a “no deal” Brexit — leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and transition period. Many economists, however, have predicted that leaving with no deal could create havoc for Britain and Europe.
Marcus Roberts, international projects director at YouGov, said a big win for the Brexit Party could translate into a boost for Johnson, even though he’s from the governing Conservatives.
“The longer they fail to deliver Brexit, the greater their need for self-flagellation becomes,” Roberts said, referring to the Conservatives.
The party’s calculation going forward, he said, could be to say, “‘Yes, we failed to deliver Brexit but, to make up for that, we’re going to pick the most Brexity Brexiteer we can find.”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been hesitant on whether his party should support a second referendum on Brexit, as many want.
Brian Feltham, 82, a retired chemist, said he decided to abandon his beloved Labour and vote Liberal Democrats because “they are the party most likely to keep us in the E.U.”
“It would be ridiculous if we were on our own,” Feltham said. “Once we were a different country, with an empire. Not anymore. We’re much too small now.”
Elizabeth Jago, 39, who was pushing her toddler in a buggy, said she had just voted Liberal Democrat because “the LibDems will give us the best chance of making the best out of a bad situation.”
“Normally I would vote Labour, but I reluctantly voted Liberal Democrats this time because they are anti-Brexit,” said Norma McArthur, 63, a retired dentist who cast her ballot at a polling station set up at a London nursery school.
Asked what Labour’s policy on Brexit was, McArthur shrugged, “I don’t know what it is.”
“This is mainly a Brexit referendum,” she added.