LONDON - British voters defied the will of their leaders and international allies by cutting ties with the European Union in a stunning result Friday that threw financial markets into turmoil and forced Britain’s prime minister to resign.
As Britain absorbed the ground-breaking news, the political fallout reached to the highest level with Prime Minister David Cameron saying he would step down after championing the campaign to remain in the European Union.
Cameron said the country now deserved “fresh leadership” in the face of the rejection in Thursday’s referendum. Cameron, who enjoys a close relationship with President Obama, said he hoped a new prime minister could be in place by October.
He said that only after the transition in leadership would the country begin the formal process of withdrawing from the European Union. But immediate shock waves resonated in all directions.
The British pound plummeted to its lowest level against the dollar in decades, and stock markets dropped sharply around the world.
The margin of victory startled even proponents of a British exit. The “Leave” campaign won by 52 percent to 48 percent. More than 17.4 million people voted in the referendum Thursday to sever ties with the European Union, and about 16.1 million to remain in the bloc.
“I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months,” Cameron said. “But I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”
Cameron also sought to offer reassurances to jittery markets, calling Britain’s economy is “fundamentally sound” and said there would be no immediate changes in the status of immigrants in the country.
The vote is perhaps the most dramatic to date in a wave of populist and nationalist uprisings occurring on both sides of the Atlantic that are overturning traditional notions of what is politically possible.
It also will have a profound effect on the European Union, which will lose a major military and diplomatic power. “This looks to be a sad day for Europe and for Britain,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
For months, Britain’s political and economic elite had looked on with growing apprehension as the country flirted with a choice - popularly known as Brexit - that experts had warned could lead to global recession and a rip in the Western alliance. The vote could also lead to Scottish secession and raised the stakes for a possible broader EU unraveling.
But most analysts had predicted this pragmatically minded country would ultimately back away from the move, and opt to keep Britain in an organization regarded as a pillar of the global economic and political order.
Instead, a majority of British voters heeded the call of pro-Brexit campaigners to liberate the nation from what many here regard as an oppressive Brussels bureaucracy that enables mass migration into the country.
“Let June the 23rd go down in our history as our independence day!” cried a jubilant Nigel Farage, a firebrand anti-EU leader, in a 4 a.m. celebration. All around him, “leave” campaigners clinked pints of beer and cheered their improbable victory.
When polls closed six hours earlier, Farage had all but conceded defeat, saying he believed “remain” had won. But as results poured in through Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday, the “remain” camp was increasingly despairing.
About a third of results had yet to be counted as of 4 a.m. local time. But the BBC reported that “leave” had taken an insurmountable lead.
The results came after 15 hours of voting, from the remote Scottish isles to the tip of Gibraltar. The outcome revealed vast divides - with massive victory margins for “remain” in thriving metropolitan centers such as London and equally resounding victories for “leave” in small towns, rural areas and struggling, post-industrial cities.
As local authorities announced results, markets swung wildly between optimism that the country would stay in, the preferred choice of investors, and pessimism that Britain had just voted to get out.
In television interviews, “remain” supporters looked stricken and predicted catastrophe.
“God help our country,” tweeted Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and an outspoken EU advocate.
The outcome will rattle officials in Washington. Obama had made a high-profile plea for Britain to stay. He was briefed on the results of the referendum, the White House said, and was expected to speak to Cameron in the next day. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who was in Scotland on Friday to open a golf course, backed Brexit.
Although Britain may not actually leave the European Union for years, Thursday’s vote fires the starting gun on what is widely expected to be a messy proceeding as Britain and EU officials begin untangling the vast web of connections between this island nation and the other 27 members of the bloc.
Cameron initially promised the referendum in 2013 in a bid to unite the country, and especially his Conservative Party, behind a common stance on an issue that has divided public opinion here for decades.
At the time, he may have expected a relatively easy victory. But the campaign soon went off script, as Justice Secretary Michael Gove and then-London Mayor Boris Johnson - friends and sparring partners of Cameron’s since his days at Oxford - both declared in February their intention to campaign for “out.”
The populist-minded Johnson will now be seen as a potential successor to Cameron.
“I think the Boris Johnson momentum will be unstoppable,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “Cameron will try to find a dignified exit. But it’s not clear how long the backbenchers will give him to do that.”
The “leave” campaign found a compelling rallying cry with its call for voters to “Take Back Control,” a slogan that resonated among an electorate ill at ease with record levels of immigration - much of it from Europe under the EU ‘s free-movement policy.
Polls suggested that “leave” alienated some voters with its reliance on what critics saw as increasingly nativist rhetoric. That was particularly true after the killing last week of pro-EU lawmaker Jo Cox, a murder that appeared to awaken a passion in “remain” supporters that had been previously lacking.
A “leave” lead last week in the polls diminished, and the race turned into a dead heat. Surveys released Thursday as Britons voted had shown “reain” with a clear edge, results that cheered investors and boosted markets across Europe and Asia.
But as with last year’s British general election, the polls were badly wrong, apparently unable to capture the mood of an increasingly defiant electorate.
The prevailing tone of the campaign on either side was fear and loathing, with neither venturing for long into hope or aspiration.
That spirit mirrored the angry mood of voters across the Atlantic, in the United States, and surprised even close observers of a nation that sees itself as deeply pragmatic and rational.
“Notions of Britain as a deferential, consensual society at ease with itself have been thrown out the window,” Fielding said. “This campaign has revealed a very profound mistrust among a substantial segment of society toward conventional political authority. The EU became a lightning rod for mistrust of politics more broadly.”
The vote split the country along essential lines: Old versus young. Provincial versus metropolitan. Scotland versus England. Native-born Britons versus immigrants.