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Right from the start, the so-called Brexit campaign took a vicious turn, and chances are it will get worse until the bitter end, when Britain votes June 23 on its membership in the European Union. This will be a referendum without a "yes" or a "no" question, but rather a choice between "in" and "out." In the colourful political lexicon of Britain, you'll have the Innies (also called Remainiacs) against the Outies (or the Brexiteers).

To Prime Minister David Cameron's dismay, Boris Johnson, the popular mayor of London, came out as an Outie, even though only days before, he had assured Mr. Cameron, his "great friend" and fellow Conservative, of his support in the Brexit referendum. In an angry speech to Parliament, Mr. Cameron indirectly accused Mr. Johnson of using the referendum to position himself to succeed the Prime Minister.

Mr. Cameron is going to war with his hands half-tied: His caucus is split on the issue, and news reports indicate that most local cadres of the party are leaning toward an Out vote. So are most newspapers (one notable exception being The Guardian). To get a majority, Mr. Cameron will have to rely on voters from the Labour and Scottish Nationalist parties, who are pro-European but are fuming at the idea of being on the same side as Mr. Cameron.

Last week, as the pound dropped to a seven-year low, the heads of Britain's largest corporations warned in a joint letter of the dire economic consequences of leaving Europe. This is a mixed blessing, however, since it will reinforce the image of the Innies as an elitist and privileged group, a dangerous slope considering the populist appeal of the Out camp. Tellingly, the big businesses that are close to the people, such as Sainsbury's and Tesco supermarkets, cautiously abstained from taking sides.

Fuelled by the xenophobic rhetoric of the U.K. Independence Party (the extreme-right, Europhobe group that has been pushing for this referendum for years), the radical fringe of the Outies camp will not be short of populist arguments to exploit the fears of those who see Europe as a vehicle for masses of Muslim migrants, and the resentment of blue-collar workers faced with competition from lower-paid Eastern Europeans.

Fear of terrorism, visceral distrust of foreigners, hatred of the EU's rigid and sometimes silly bureaucratic rules, anger about the public aid devoted to foreign workers while the lower middle class struggles – all make for an explosive mix that the concessions Mr. Cameron gained from Brussels cannot appease. His only major win was a four-year limitation of in-work benefits for non-British workers. For the Outies, this is a laughable compromise, but for Europe it was a huge breach to its basic principle of free movement of European workers.

Britain is not really an active partner in the EU; it's neither in the euro zone nor part of Schengen (the treaty that erased the frontiers). And it never warmed to the generous and visionary concept underlying the EU's creation – hardly surprising, in a fiercely isolationist country where people still talk of "the continent" as if they didn't belong to it.

Still, the retreat of the second-richest member country (after Germany) and the second military power (after France) would deal a quasi-death blow to a union that has already started to unravel under the terrible pressures of the migrant crisis.