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A victory for the “Leave” camp could unleash turmoil on the financial markets, and foreign exchange bureaus have already reported a surge in demand for foreign currency from Britons wary the sterling may fall.
“It’s very close; nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Cameron told Wednesday’s Financial Times, with opinion polls showing the rival camps neck and neck.
The “Leave” camp was at 45 percent versus the 44 percent for “Remain”, with 9 percent still undecided according to the last poll published by Opinium, which called the results a “statistical tie”.
“Leave” had a two-point advantage in a separate poll by research firm TNS, down from seven points in a previous TNS survey on June 14. But TNS said the lead could evaporate on polling day, as in past referendums in Scotland and Quebec.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned there would be no further renegotiations with the UK whatever the result on Thursday after EU leaders reached a deal on a new settlement for Britain in February.
French President François Hollande said a vote to leave could seriously jeopardise British access to the EU’s prized single market and said a Brexit would be “irreversible”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she did not want to speculate on what dangers would arise if Britain left.
World leaders including US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and NATO and Commonwealth allies have urged Britain to remain in the EU.
The referendum will take place a week after the murder of ardently pro-EU lawmaker Jo Cox shocked the country, raising questions about the tone of the increasingly bitter four-month-long campaign.
Much of the debate has boiled down to two issues: the economy and immigration.
The City of London financial centre, the International Monetary Fund and the majority of British business leaders back Cameron and his “Remain” camp’s stance that to leave the EU would plunge Britain into recession, costing jobs and raising prices.
But supporters of a so-called Brexit have struck a chord with many voters by saying Britain would regain control of immigration if it cut itself loose from a bloc they see as domineering and out of touch.
In what has become an ugly and personal fight, both camps have been accused of using unfounded assertions and scare tactics. “Remain” campaigners accuse their opponents of resorting to the politics of hate; the “Leave” camp say their rivals have used the politics of fear to scare voters about the economic risks.
Both sides hit the road and the airwaves to appeal to the large number of undecided voters who will be decisive, along with the level of turnout.
“It’s our last chance to sort this out and take back control,” said former London mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the “Leave” campaign and a favourite with bookmakers to replace Cameron in the event of Brexit.
“If we don’t vote to leave tomorrow we will remain locked in the back of the car, driven in an uncertain direction, frankly, to a place we don’t want to go, and perhaps by a driver who doesn’t speak the very best of English,” he said.
Johnson was flying around the country in a helicopter to spread the Brexit message, making an unashamed appeal to patriotism by declaring that Thursday could be Britain’s “independence day”.
The leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, also played the nationalist card in an address to supporters in London.
“At the end of the day tomorrow when people vote, they must make a decision – which flag is theirs? I want us to live under British passports and under the British flag,” he said.
Cameron, who called the referendum under pressure from his own Conservative party and from the insurgent UKIP, urged voters to remain in the club Britain joined in 1973.
“If we leave, we will diminish our country and our ability to get things done in the world,” he told a crowd in Bristol in western England.
Standing alongside him, former premier John Major said the result would have to be respected but warned that if “Leave” won, “the gravediggers of our prosperity will have to account for what they have said and done”.
Opinion polls have depicted a deeply divided nation, with big differences between older and younger voters, and between pro-EU London and Scotland and eurosceptic Middle England. Some polls published since Cox’s murder have suggested a swing towards “Remain”, though often the shift falls within the margin of error.
Election experts say turnout will be crucial because of a gulf between generations. Young people, who have a poor voting record, strongly back staying in the EU, while elderly, more regular voters tend to favour an exit. Opposition Labour Party supporters are seen as being more pro-EU than Conservatives, but less passionate about the issue.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who voted “No” in a previous 1975 referendum on staying in the European Economic Community and who has been criticised for lukewarm backing for the “Remain” cause, attempted to galvanise his party on Wednesday.
“Vote for jobs, vote for rights at work, vote for our NHS (National Health Service), vote to remain in the European Union,” he told a rally in London.
The implied probability of a “Remain” vote was at 74 percent, according to Betfair odds.
The official results are due sometime after 6am GMT on Friday but partial results and turnout figures from 382 counting centres will be announced starting from about 1am GMT.