LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron appealed to voters across the generation gap on Tuesday (July 21) to back staying in the European Union, two days before a cliff-hanger referendum that will shape the future of the West.
Britons vote on Thursday (June 23) on whether to quit the 28-nation bloc amid warnings from world leaders, investors and companies that a decision to leave would diminish the former imperial power's influence, unleash turmoil on markets and send shock waves through Europe and the wider Western world.
In an address outside his Downing Street office, Cameron hammered home his message that leaving the EU would jeopardise Britain's economy and its national security, with fewer jobs, fewer allies and higher prices.
"Brits don't quit," he said, using the official backdrop to make a direct pitch to older voters considered more eurosceptic and more likely to vote.
"It will just be you in that polling booth. Just you, taking a decision that will affect your future, your children's future, your grandchildren's future."
The Conservative prime minister's last-minute intervention came as an opinion poll showed support for staying in the EU shrinking. The Survation poll put the "Remain" camp just one percentage point ahead of the campaign for a so-called Brexit, well within the margin of error.
Opponents said the hastily arranged appearance suggested Cameron, who promised the referendum in 2013 under pressure from lawmakers in his party, was very worried about the outcome.
"Cameron is panicked, it's out of his hands now," Arron Banks, a multi-millionaire insurance tycoon who is funding one of the Leave campaigns, said on Twitter.
Raoul Ruparel, co-director of Open Europe, a think-tank, said Cameron wanted to project a solemn, statesmanlike image. "Because it was called off the cuff it looks panicked, but all people will see from the news are the clips which show him looking very measured and relaxed," Ruparel told Reuters.
As each side sought to play its last trump cards, the pro-EU "Britain Stronger in Europe" campaign issued a final poster of a door leading into a dark void with the slogan: "Leave and there's no going back."
If Britain votes to leave, Cameron would face pressure to resign, though he has said he will continue as leader.
Campaigning was suspended for three days after the killing of pro-EU lawmaker Jo Cox in northern England last Thursday (June 16).
Cox, who had also campaigned for Britain to do more to help refugees, was shot and stabbed in her constituency. "She had very strong political views and I believe she was killed because of those views," her husband Brendan Cox told broadcasters.
"She was particularly worried about the direction, not just in the UK but globally, ... of politics at the moment, particularly around creating division and playing on people's worst fears rather than their best instincts."
Some Leave campaigners accuse the Remain camp of exploiting her death as part of what they call scaremongering by the establishment at home and abroad.
After Cox's killing, opinion polls indicated sentiment had swung back to the Remain side after a shift towards Leave. An earlier ORB survey for the Daily Telegraph put support for Remain at 53 per cent, up 5 percentage points on the previous one, with Leave on 46 per cent, down three points.
"All the signs of ORB's latest and final poll point to a referendum that will truly come down to the wire," said Lynton Crosby, a political strategist who advised the Conservatives at the last national election in 2015.
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Former England soccer captain David Beckham, a hugely popular public figure, added his voice to Remain's list of celebrity supporters.
"For our children and their children we should be facing the problems of the world together and not alone," he said.
Leave campaigners stepped up their focus on what they call uncontrolled immigration, saying Cameron had been warned four years ago his goal of reducing net arrivals was impossible due to EU rules.
The anti-EU UK Independence Party issued a poster showing a traffic jam with the message "The school over-run" and saying nearly one in four of Britain's primary schools were full or oversubscribed.
The Leave camp says it is the anti-establishment choice, and its message that EU membership has handed political control to Brussels and fuelled mass immigration has struck a chord with many Britons.
Already shaken by differences over migration and the future of the euro zone, the EU would lose its second-largest economy, one of its top two military powers and by far its richest financial centre.
George Soros, the billionaire who bet against the pound in 1992, wrote in the Guardian newspaper that a vote to leave would trigger a bigger, more disruptive devaluation than the fall on Black Wednesday, when market pressure forced sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
In the latest warning of potential economic damage, two sources familiar with the company's thinking told Reuters that Britain's biggest carmaker, Jaguar Land Rover, estimates its annual profit could be cut by 1 billion pounds (S$1.97 billion) by the end of the decade if Britain leaves the EU.
Speaking before the US Senate's Banking Committee, Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen said a Brexit would unleash a rush to safety that would push up the dollar and safe-haven currencies.
Sterling, which climbed to a 5 1/2-month high earlier on Tuesday on polls suggesting the mood of the public was swinging behind the Remain camp, fell back after more polls and surveys showed the vote was on a knife-edge.
According to Betfair betting odds, the implied probability of a British vote to remain in the EU is 76 per cent, but analysts in the financial markets were more cautious. "We will go into the vote without high confidence in predicting the outturn in either direction," JPMorgan researcher Malcolm Barr said in a note to clients.