London (AFP) – First results from Britain’s knife-edge referendum showed unexpectedly strong support for leaving the European Union on Friday, sending the pound plummeting as investors feared a historic blow against the 28-nation alliance.
Just minutes earlier, global financial markets had been surging after two opinion polls gave them hope that Britons would choose to stay in the bloc, born out of a determination to forge lasting peace after two world wars.
A record 46.5 million people 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.
The first official returns showed the northern English city of Sunderland voting to leave the EU by a larger margin than expected.
Champagne corks popped at the anti-EU campaign headquarters in London as the Sunderland result was announced.
Nearby Newcastle, which was expected to deliver a resounding “Remain” result, voted to stay, but only just.
That result could be a concern for the “Remain” camp, said Professor Simon Hix of the London School of Economics who had predicted strong backing for the pro-EU cause.
“Wow. That could be a very big worry,” he told reporters in London.
However, polling experts cautioned that it was still too early to draw conclusions and the result was too close to call.
With 15 of the 382 constituencies having declared their results, the Leave camp had a lead of 50.2 percent.
Sterling, which had surged to a 2016 high of $1.50 barely two hours earlier, slumped to below $1.43 as the early results sank in.
In a sign of the deep uncertainty hanging over the referendum, a key Brexit campaigner had appeared to be close to conceding defeat even before the first results were released.
Nigel Farage, leader of the pro-“Leave” UK Independence Party, told Sky News: “It looks like Remain will edge it.”
“I hope I am wrong, I hope I will be made a fool of,” Farage later told supporters in London, stressing that he was not officially conceding defeat.
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.
Commentators suggest Brexit could trigger a constitutional crisis in Britain, prompting another Scottish independence referendum.
Voting in a launderette
There are also fears it could prompt other EU countries, disillusioned with how Brussels has handed the eurozone and migrant crises, to try to break away.
Polling stations were set up at locations including churches, schools and even a launderette and a windmill.
Outside a polling station in suburban Biggin Hill, south of London, 55-year-old Steve Annett, who works in publishing, said: “We’re stronger together working with our European neighbours.
“Obviously the economy is a major concern,” he told AFP.
Meanwhile pensioner Wendie said older people were “fed up of being taken over, our laws being taken over by the EU. Why can’t we rule our own country?”
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.
Cameron invokes Churchill
At his final rally on Wednesday, Cameron implored people to stay in the bloc, invoking Britain’s cigar-chomping wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
“Churchill didn’t give up on European democracy… and we shouldn’t walk away,” he said.
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.