Britain began voting Thursday on whether to remain a member of the European Union or split from the 28-nation bloc, a once-in-a-generation decision that will determine the United Kingdom’s future economic prosperity and the course of the EU.
Polling stations opened at 7am and will close at 10pm London time, when the election count will begin. The first results are expected around midnight from Gibraltar and the Isles of Scilly, with the cities of Sunderland and Newcastle following about half an hour later.
The final results are due about 7am on Friday.
The referendum is the culmination of one of the most divisive campaigns of modern British history, with both sides accusing each other of lying to the electorate.
The contest pitted Prime Minister David Cameron’s warnings of the economic and financial risks attached to quitting the EU against calls by the “Leave” side of former London Mayor Boris Johnson to unshackle Britain from the constrains of Brussels.
In his final campaign event, late Wednesday at the University of Birmingham, Cameron urged undecided voters to “put jobs first, put the economy first, put your children’s future first, put our future first as a country.” Johnson told Sky News as he embarked on a tour of the UK by plane that “this is our last chance to take back control and it’s worth fighting for.”
Polling has suggested the vote is finely balanced between the two camps, even as financial markets and betting odds indicate “Remain” is on course to win. The pound traded close to a five-month high on the eve of voting, while an index of betting flows compiled by Oddschecker showed the chance of Brexit at about 29% as of Wednesday night in London.
Torrential rain was forecast for areas of southern and eastern England, though analysts are divided on how overall turnout will affect the result. For a broader discussion of turnout, click here.
The outcome is being watched around the world after warnings by the UK Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and others that a so-called Brexit risked jobs, incomes, a plunge in the pound and damage to the UK economy. That’s a prospect that threatens to roil global markets and buttress anti-establishment movements in other EU members.
“It’s a British decision, but with potentially spectacular consequences for the rest of Europe,” Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said in a phone interview.
A record number of Britons, 46.5-million, have registered to vote, according to the Electoral Commission, suggesting that turnout across the UK will be high. All the same, polling analysts disagree on the impact of turnout on the referendum outcome.
At stake is the UK’s relationship with its European neighbors and allies that together make up the world’s largest trading bloc, comprising half a billion people. Cameron’s job and that of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne are also on the line. So too is the 300-year-old union between England, Wales and Scotland, after the Scottish National Party suggested it may demand another independence referendum if English ballots drag Scotland out of the EU against its will.
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The four-month campaign was triggered in February when Cameron announced the referendum date after negotiating new terms for Britain’s relationship with the bloc. Since then, everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama and his prospective successor, Donald Trump, to former England soccer captain David Beckham and Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger has pronounced on the debate.
Jobs vs. Foreigners
Cameron and the cross-party “Remain” campaign have focused on the economic risks of a Brexit, saying that Britain is “stronger, safer and better off” in the EU and that a vote to leave the bloc after more than four decades would be irreversible.
That prompted accusations of scaremongering from their “Leave” opponents, who hammered home the message that a vote for Brexit means the UK can “take back control” of immigration, set its own laws and save the money it contributes to the EU budget.
“It has boiled down to jobs versus foreigners,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in northwest London. The referendum will determine whether “the economy will win out over immigration.”
When the campaign began, “Remain” led in most polls, but the gap narrowed as the vote drew nearer, until a slew of polls last week gave “Leave” the lead. The dynamic changed after the killing one week ago of pro-EU Labour lawmaker Jo Cox.
Despite his assertion that he’ll stay on as prime minister, Cameron may struggle to retain control of his Conservative Party in the event of a vote to leave. Some lawmakers have already written letters demanding his resignation, and if 15 percent of the parliamentary party do so, it’ll trigger a leadership vote.
“I can’t imagine how he could stay” in the event of a vote to leave, Anthony Wells, director of political and social polling at YouGov Plc, said in a phone interview. — Bloomberg