Britain's EU battle turns into cliffhanger
24 June 2016, 07:26
London -The battle over Britain's future in the European Union turned into a white knuckle ride Friday as early results from a historic referendum showed a greater-than-expected chance of the island nation leaving the 28-nation bloc.
Sterling plummeted as investors feared a historic blow against the alliance, an economic and political force created 60 years ago out of a determination to forge lasting peace from the carnage of two world wars.
After months of banking on Britain remaining in the bloc, major bookmakers changed their odds dramatically as results flowed in -- first making the "Leave" option a strong favourite and then switching again minutes later to give a slight edge to "Remain".
With results in for only 84 of the 382 areas that took part across Britain, the final result was on a knife edge with heavyweights including London yet to be declared.
At the all-night Lexington Bar in central London, jittery punters cheered whenever "Remain" appeared to regain the upper hand.
"This is incredibly close. We have no idea where this is going to go," said 33-year-old "Remain" supporter Beverly David.
A record 46.5 million people had registered to vote, many of them braving torrential rain and floods to take a momentous decision after a highly charged battle over immigration, the economy and Britain's very identity.
"It's far more confused. It does look very close so that makes the prediction even more difficult," said London School of Economics professor Kevin Featherstone.
In Brussels, the prospect of the world's fifth-largest economy quitting the European club has raised concerns of a domino effect of exit votes that would imperil the integrity of the bloc, already buffeted by the eurozone and migration crises.
A defeat for "Remain" would lead to immediate pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to stand down. The Conservative Party leader took a high-stakes gamble by promising the vote three years ago but it has deeply divided his party and the nation.
Brexit could trigger a constitutional crisis in Britain, too. If the country votes to leave the EU while Scotland chooses to stay, it could trigger a new independence referendum just two years after Scots voted against going it alone.
The first results from cities in northern England showed stronger-than-expected support for a Brexit. Champagne corks popped at an anti-Brussels party attended by UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage.
But a strident declaration of some heavily populated areas of London for "Remain" helped redress the balance.
Both sides now stand nearly neck-and-neck.
Nuneaton, a town in central England seen as a bellweather of public opinion in general elections, voted 66 percent for "Leave". But general elections are no guide for this unprecedented referendum.
Sterling, which had surged to a 2016 high of $1.50 barely two hours earlier, slumped to below $1.43 before regaining a little ground.
In a sign of the deep uncertainty hanging over the result, Brexit campaigner Farage had appeared to be close to conceding defeat before the first results were released.
"It looks like Remain will edge it," he told Sky News.
"I hope I am wrong, I hope I will be made a fool of," Farage later told supporters in London.
A solid indication of the final result is not expected until at least 0300 GMT.
One of the final surveys, a YouGov survey, indicated a 52 percent-48 percent advantage for the "Remain" camp, led by Prime Minister David Cameron who took a high-stakes gamble by promising the referendum in 2013.
An Ipsos MORI poll said telephone interviews conducted on referendum day showed "Remain" at 54 percent and "Leave" at 46 percent.
'Too close to call'
The official "Leave" campaign declined to comment on the possible outcome, with a source telling AFP before the first results came in that it was "too close to call".
Leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson joined 83 other Conservative MPs in signing a letter released Thursday that insisted Cameron should stay in his post regardless of the result of Britain's decision.
Johnson, the former London mayor, said the race was "very close", as he returned to the British capital from Edinburgh.
Several polling stations had to be relocated due to flooding and one was being run on a generator due to a power outage.
Polling stations were set up at locations including churches, schools and even a launderette and a windmill.
EU leaders have warned Britain -- the world's fifth-largest economy -- that there would be no turning back from a vote to quit.
"Out is out," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday, dismissing any talk of a post-vote renegotiation of Britain's membership terms.
EU leaders will begin a two-day summit Tuesday to deal with the outcome and decide how to cope with the risk of similar referendums on the continent.
In many European countries, newspapers pleaded "Please don't go" while several monuments were lit up with the British flag.
The referendum battle was shaken by the brutal murder of Jo Cox, a pro-"Remain" Labour lawmaker and mother of two who was stabbed and shot in the street one week before the vote.
Thomas Mair, 52, has been charged with her murder and had a provisional trial date set for November at a court hearing on Thursday.