The U.K. has voted to leave the European Union, a surprise result that has stunned the political establishment and sent shock waves around the global economy.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had championed the cause to remain within the E.U., announced he would resign in the wake of the vote. Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said he would stand down in three months.
“I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the European Union. And I made clear the referendum was about this and this alone, not the future of any single politician, including myself,” he said. “But the British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction. I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months. 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 said he expected to hand over to a new Prime Minister in October.
His announcement followed the the confirmation Friday morning that the Leave campaign had won with 52% to 48% for Remain. The number of votes cast for Leave was 17,410,742, compared with 16,141,241 for Remain. The last set of polls taken before the election had given Remain a distinct advantage.
As initial results trickled in indicating a likely Leave vote, the pound sterling slid dramatically against the dollar, and stocks in Asian markets saw volatility with investors concerned about the effects of a “Brexit.” The Bank of England put out a statement Friday morning saying it would take “all necessary steps” to guarantee economic stability in the wake of the vote.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England tried to reassure volatile markets by saying the bank would not “not hesitate” to steady the markets and would make £250b billion available to U.K. banks. “It will take some time for the UK to establish a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. So some market and economic volatility can be expected as this process unfolds, but we are well prepared for this,” he said.
A record number of Britons — almost 46.5 million — were registered to vote, and over 33.5 million cast ballots. In Scotland, where results were reported earlier than elsewhere, an overwhelming majority voted to Remain. But in England, where about 84% of the U.K.’s population of almost 65 million people live, the vote to leave was stronger in most areas. London was the outlier, with most boroughs voting to Remain.
Concerns over historically high levels of immigration from other European countries was perhaps the key factor in the debate running up to the vote, but many Leave voters aired concerns that British sovereignty was essentially being handed to Brussels.
Even in areas that voted overall to remain, the number of votes to leave the E.U. was often higher than expected. In Wales and areas in the north of England, which have traditionally backed the Labour Party, many voters appeared to have ignored the party’s appeals for them to support Remain.
Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson said that the U.K. can stand on its own, assuring younger people that there is a prosperous future ahead for them Britain. “Above all we can find our voice in the world again. Powerful, liberal, humane, an extraordinary force for good. Yesterday the British people have spoken up for democracy.”
Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigned for Leave, declared that the result marked an “independence day” for Britain.
“This will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people,” he told BBC Radio. “We will have done it without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired, we’ll have done it by damn hard work on the ground,” he added.
There’s a large amount of uncertainty about what happens next. Although the vote is not legally binding, Cameron will be under pressure to promptly notify the E.U. under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the exit clause that allows for a two-year period of negotiations over the terms of Britain’s exit.
The U.K. — the world’s fifth largest economy — will separately have to begin new negotiations on how it trades with the rest of the world. It must agree new trade terms with the E.U. if it wants access to the bloc’s single market. And, as the U.K. currently relies on E.U.-negotiated agreements to govern its trade with most countries, including the U.S., the British government will also have to reach new deals with those nations.
Beyond Britain’s borders, many have also raised the possibility that Eurosceptics in some of the other 27 E.U. countries will be emboldened by Brexit, and the union itself could come under threat.