Britons, many worried by immigration and what they saw as interference in the running of their country by bureaucrats in Brussels, voted by 52 to 48 percent to abandon the bloc after 43 years of often troubled membership.
In an emotional statement outside Downing Street, Cameron said he would resign to make way for a new leader by early October after the failure of his “Remain” campaign.
“I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination,” he said as sterling, global stocks and oil prices plummeted.
– ‘Take a bow’ –
The result caused the pound to fall to a 31-year low of $1.3229 at one point but it recovered some ground after the Bank of England said it stood ready to pump £250 billion ($370 billion, 326 billion euros) into the financial system to avert a crisis.
European stock markets dropped around eight percent at opening before recovering later, while British bank shares lost a quarter of their value in morning trade.
London’s FTSE 100 index recovered to close down 3.2 percent. US stocks dived, with both the Dow and S&P 500 closing down more than three percent.
Britain will be the first country to leave the EU, in a move seen a victory for the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Brexit campaign that highlights growing populism across Europe.
“Take a bow, Britain!”, eurosceptic newspaper the Daily Mail wrote across its front page on Saturday.
“It was the day the quiet people of Britain rose up against an arrogant, out-of-touch political class and a contemptuous Brussels elite,” it added.
The vote, the culmination of an often poisonous campaign, exposed deep divides across British society, including between what The Independent newspaper called “those doing well from globalisation and those ‘left behind’ and not seeing the benefits in jobs or wages”.
It may be some time before Britain takes the concrete steps needed to extricate itself from what will become a 27-member alliance.
Cameron said it should be his successor who leads the complex negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which sets out a two-year time-frame to leave.
– Domino effect –
The “Leave” victory threatens to shatter the unity of the United Kingdom, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in while England – barring big cities like London – and Wales supported out.