Polls have closed in the UK’s referendum on leaving the EU – leaving an overnight wait until the result of one of the most significant events in the 28-member bloc’s history.
Turnout – a possible indicator of the final result – may known within a few hours, but a full and final result of voting in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar will not come until around “breakfast”, according to the Electoral Commission, the independent body overseeing the count.
Once the result is announced, in the northern city of Manchester early morning on Friday, the Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to address the nation.
A ‘leave’ victory could see him and Chancellor George Osborne under pressure to resign within days – even hours – whilst all eyes would be on the stock market and foreign exchanges to see the affect of what both sides admit would be a massive political rupture on the economy.
A ‘remain’ win would see sighs of relief in London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Washington.
Second Scottish referendum, stock market chaos?
Among only the most obvious effects would be a possible second Scottish independence referendum, if Scotland votes to remain in the EU but the overall vote is for ‘out’, and a possible ‘domino effect’ on other EU member states wanting to renegotiate their terms of membership, in the face of popular discontent and rising nativist forces.
However, with months of opinion polling effectively predicting a dead heat, the final margin of victory or loss may have to be measured – for either side – in hundreds, even tens, of thousands, from a possible electorate of 46.5 million.
On Thursday night Brussels was hit by torrential rainstorms, thunder and lightning, as if reflecting the turmoil and uncertainty across the EU institutions.
That severe weather had also hit parts of southern England during the day, raising worries about turnout.
With no real precedents for such a national referendum in recent times, political analysts have suggested that a weak turnout, below 60%, would help the Leave side of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, whose supporters seem the most motivated to turn out.
The polling card asks simply: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
With results expected to trickle in through the early hours of Friday, extrapolations of a national result will be difficult, thanks to the polarised nature of the contest.
In outline, London, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and cities such as Oxford, Cambridge are expected to be heavily pro-EU, whilst the east coast, industrial northern England, parts of Wales and the south west, could swing for an ‘out ‘vote.
On Thursday, as throughout the campaign, all officials in Brussels were tightlipped – as excited, or anxious, as the voters of the UK. However, Commission spokesman Margaritas Schinas permitted himself a small joke, pointing out that all the teams of the UK – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – had succeeded in going through the group stage of the Euro 2016 football competition.
On Wednesday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – at a press conference with the Austrian Chancellor, had warned that “out is out”, saying the February renegotiation of the UK membership had given Britian all that Brussels could offer.
London’s benchmark FTSE 100 share index closed up 1.2 percent at 6,338.1 points, while key eurozone indices in Frankfurt and Paris forged even higher, at around two percent up.
In currency trading, the pound hit a 2016 high against the dollar at $1.4947.
In many European countries on Thursday, newspapers pleaded “Please don’t go” while several monuments were lit up with the British flag.
The often acrimonious and bad-tempered campaign – which focused on little other than immigration and the economy – was also shaken by the brutal murder of the MP Jo Cox, who was campaigning for Remain, and a passionate advocate of the cause of Syrian refugees.