The British pound seesawed dramatically early Friday as the first results came in for Britain's referendum on whether to leave the European Union, with increasingly mixed signals challenging earlier indications that "remain" had won a narrow victory.
The pound initially soared after two leading supporters of the "leave" campaign said it appeared the pro-EU side had won, but then plummeted as Britain's first few counting areas reported their results. The stage was set for a nerve-wracking night of ballot-counting after a day of high turnout and foul weather.
"It may be possible that the experts are going to have egg on their face later on tonight," University of Strathcylde political scientist John Curtice told the BBC after results from Newcastle showed worse-than-expected figures for pro-European vote. "It may be the first sign that the 'remain' side are not going to do as well as those early polls suggested."
The first results, from England's working-class northeast, were a smaller-than-expected "remain" win in Newcastle and a bigger-than-expected "leave" vote in nearby Sunderland.
A vote to leave the EU would destabilize the 28-nation trading bloc, created from the ashes of World War II to keep the peace in Europe. A "remain" vote would nonetheless leave Britain divided and the EU scrambling to reform.
As the polls closed Thursday, U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage set a downbeat tone for the supporters of a British exit — or Brexit — from the EU, telling Sky News television "it looks like 'remain' will edge it" in the referendum, sending the pound to a 2016 peak of $1.50.
But he walked back those comments later, telling reporters at a "leave" party in central London that "maybe just under half, maybe just over half of the country" had voted to pull Britain out of the EU.
Early Friday the pound was trading at about $1.453 after having plummeted all the way to 1.443.
The most recent polls had suggested "remain" had a narrow lead.
Pollster Ipsos MORI said a survey conducted on Wednesday and Thursday suggested the "remain" side would win Britain's EU referendum by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
Earlier Thursday, the firm had released a poll that indicated a 52-48 victory for "remain." That phone poll of 1,592 people had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. But the firm's chief executive, Ben Page, said continued polling on Thursday suggested a bigger swing to "remain" that gave the 54-46 result.
Many other surveys have also shown the "remain" vote ahead, but the results from the northeast appear to have chastened bookmakers. Betfair, which late Thursday had offered odds of 12-to-1 that Britain would stay in the EU, slashed them to 2-to-1 only about an hour later.
The overseas territory of Gibraltar was the first to report results late Thursday, and as expected the British enclave reported an overwhelming vote for "remain" — 96 percent.
There as elsewhere, turnout appeared high. Officials in Gibraltar said almost 84 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots; witnesses and reporters elsewhere said turnout was higher than in last year's general election, which was 66 percent.
High turnout is expected to boost the "remain" vote, because "leave" supporters are thought to be more motivated. But high turnout in working-class areas that typically have lower tallies could also boost the "leave" vote.
"I think it is going to be really close," said photographer Antony Crolla, 49, outside a London polling station.
That was certainly the case in Newcastle, a city which had been expected to deliver a resounding victory for "remain." Instead, the pro-Europe side squeaked by with 50.7 percent of the vote. In Sunderland, 61 percent of voters chose "leave," a bigger-than expected margin. –
The picture is still far too incomplete to say with certainty which way the vote has gone. Most of those reporting so far have been tiny districts such as the Isles of Scilly — off Britain's western coast — or the Orkney Islands off the coast of mainland Scotland.
"Leave" campaigners claim that only a vote to leave can restore power to Parliament and control immigration. The "remain" campaign, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, argues that Britain is safer and richer inside the EU.
At its root, however, the debate is also about the changing face of Britain, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month:
As much as anything, though, the June 23 vote will reveal insights into how generational and class divisions, as well as unprecedented diversity, are changing the modern identity of Britain and what it means today to be British.
“Britain has always been a rather reluctant European,” says Iain Begg, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s European Institute. “In contrast to motivations for joining Europe or pulling it together that were dominant in France and Germany, namely stopping war … Britain has always seen the EU as more of a cost-benefit transaction.”
Polls had for months suggested a close battle, although the past few days have seen some indication of momentum swinging toward the "remain" side.
Torrential rains, especially in the "remain" stronghold of London, raised fears of diminished turnout. London's Fire Brigade took 550 weather-related calls as the capital was hit by heavy rain, thunderstorms and lightning strikes. Some polling stations were forced to close because of flooding.