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London Mayor Boris Johnson is emerging as a leader among Britons who want to leave the European Union.

PETER NICHOLLS/Reuters

British Prime Minister David Cameron left Brussels Friday with a package of modest European Union concessions to show for six months of heavy lobbying and 32 hours of tough bargaining for a new deal for Britain.

Mr. Cameron predictably claimed victory in his effort to get "special status" within the EU and insisted this gives him the ammunition to convince a skeptical electorate that the country is better off remaining in the regional bloc.

Yet, it became clear during the weekend that the battle for Britons will be a bitter one and the outcome of a stay-or-go referendum scheduled for June 23 is very much up in the air, with the economic recovery at stake and investors in for an exceptionally bumpy ride. The pound plunged Monday against the greenback in its worst single-day decline in nearly six years. Not even the threat of Scottish separation in 2014 did that to the currency. The major credit-rating agencies have weighed in with warnings of reduced investment prospects and inevitable downgrades.

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Meanwhile, large companies focused on the broader European market are likely to delay investment plans until they see where Britain is heading. An exit would almost certainly see global banks and other multinationals shifting some assets out of the country. The heads of about half of Britain's 100 largest corporations are set to publicly endorse remaining in the EU. But some major retailers and manufacturers are worried about angering customers and unions backing a split.

"The 'uncertainty' aspect is where the problem lies for investors in British assets," Bipan Rai, director of foreign exchange and macro strategy at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said in a note to clients. "The more discordant the debates are, the more likely that British assets will be impacted negatively."

Unlike the Scottish case, Mr. Cameron can't even get his entire cabinet on board the EU express. At least half a dozen Tory ministers, all of whom are card-carrying EU bashers, will campaign to quit the bloc. And the politician emerging as the "to hell with Brussels" leader is popular London Mayor Boris Johnson, who informed the PM by text message that he was casting his lot with fellow party dissidents.

This prompted a remarkable display of pique by Mr. Cameron, who thought he'd the support of the mayor, a noted europhile and a likely candidate to succeed him as Tory Leader. He mocked Mr. Johnson's suggestion that a vote for the Leave campaign could prompt more EU reforms and a second referendum, an idea already nixed by European leaders.

"I have known a number of couples who have begun divorce proceedings," Mr. Cameron told the House of Commons, in a pointed reference to the mayor's marital difficulties. "But I do not know any who have begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows."

Mr. Cameron rashly promised a referendum in the first place as part of his successful campaign for re-election last year, in part to mollify the rightist euroskeptics in his own party and deprive the far right of a key issue. He also hoped to use it as leverage to cut a better deal with Brussels to reduce the government's soaring social costs, curb migration and boost regional competitiveness.

But referendums don't always go the way governments hope, particularly when it comes to EU matters. Norwegians rejected joining the club in 1972 and again in 1994, both by a slim margin. Britain's Conservative government took the country into the EU without a referendum. But Labour leader Harold Wilson made a vote part of his successful election platform in 1974. More than 67 per cent opted to stay in. Efforts to expand the EU and change treaty terms have met with similar mixed success.

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The new battle is producing some exceedingly strange bedfellows – with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed socialist, and all but nine of the other 229 Labour MPs lined up alongside a large chunk of Big Business, Scottish separatists and the divided Tories.

Polls show the result will be close. So, Mr. Cameron will have to battle tooth and nail to keep something he never had to put to a vote in the first place. In the meantime, he has caused needless stress for the market and imperilled the economic recovery.

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