Britain has voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly divisive referendum campaign, toppling the David Cameron government, sending global markets plunging Friday and shattering the stability of a project in continental unity designed half a century ago to prevent World War III.

The decision raises the likelihood of years of negotiations over trade, business and political links with what will become a 27-nation bloc. In essence, the vote marks the start — rather than the end — of a process that could take decades to unwind.

Results released early Friday show the Leave side prevailed 52 per cent to 48 per cent in Thursday’s vote as tallied by British broadcasters, with a Remain win a mathematical impossibility.

The vote had a turnout of 72 per cent of the more than 46 million registered voters.

In a dramatic turnaround from his gloomy outlook in the first hours after polls closed, U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) Leader Nigel Farage was ebullient in a speech to supporters, just ahead of media projections at 4:40 a.m. local time Friday that Leave would win the day.

Cameron, to the surprise of many observers, announced over four hours later his plans to resign by October.

“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 the country to its next destination,” said Cameron.

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Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street with his wife Samantha, to announce his plans to step down this year after Britain voted to leave the European Union. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Cameron, who called the referendum and campaigned for the country to stay in, was besieged by a Leave camp that included rivals from within his own Conservative Party.

In a letter, 84 euro-skeptic Conservative MPs did call on Cameron to remain prime minister regardless of the result. It marked the first attempt to heal the deep rifts that have opened up in the ruling party since the start of the campaign.

Former London mayor Boris Johnson, a leading voice in the Leave campaign and a potential successor to Cameron, on Friday lauded the outgoing PM as a “brave and principled man.”

Johnson said Britain will continue to be a “great European power” even when it leaves the EU.

“We cannot turn our backs on Europe. We part of Europe,” Johnson said.

“But there is simply no need in the 21st century to be part of a federal system of government based in Brussels … It was a noble idea for its time. It is no longer right for this country.”

Immediate financial hit

The British pound soared after two leading supporters of the Leave campaign said it appeared the pro-EU side had won, then plummeted to a three-decade low as more counting areas reported their results.

The Bank of England said early Friday it had undertaken extensive contingency planning and would take “all necessary steps” to meet its responsibilities for monetary and fiscal stability.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney says capital requirements for Britain’s largest banks are 10 times higher than before the start of the 2008 financial crisis.

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Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), reacts at a Leave.eu party in London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

As results poured in, a picture emerged of a sharply divided nation: Strong pro-EU votes in the economic and cultural powerhouse of London and semi-autonomous Scotland were countered by sweeping anti-establishment sentiment for an exit across the rest of England, from southern seaside towns to rust-belt former industrial powerhouses in the north.

“A lot of people’s grievances are coming out and we have got to start listening to them,” said John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s deputy leader.

Long negotiations ahead

The result triggers a new series of negotiations that is expected to last two years or more as Britain and the EU search for a way to separate economies that have become intertwined since the U.K. joined the bloc on Jan. 1, 1973. Until those talks are completed, Britain will remain a member of the EU.

Exiting the EU involves taking the unprecedented step of invoking Article 50 of the EU’s governing treaty. While Greenland left an earlier, more limited version of the bloc in 1985, no country has ever invoked Article 50, so there is no road map for how the process will work.

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Counting took place at a polling station in Belfast, Northern Ireland, following voting on the U.K. referendum on whether the country should remain in the European Union. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

“It will usher in a lengthy and possibly protracted period of acute economic uncertainty about the U.K.’s trading arrangements,” said Daniel Vernazza, the U.K. economist at UniCredit.

The European Union is the world’s biggest economy and the U.K.’s most important trading partner, accounting for 45 per cent of exports and 53 per cent of imports.

“There is no need to implement Article 50 straight away — in fact it would be foolish to do so,” said Leave chief Matthew Elliott. “The best thing is to take stock of this, for the PM to talk with cabinet colleagues, with parliament and other member states.”

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for Remain, disagreed, arguing that the article should invoked immediately.

As to the result, Corbyn said, “Britons feel very angry at the way they have been marginalized by successive governments.”

Scotland ‘unequivocal’ about EU benefit

Polling stations closed at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. ET) Thursday after four months of heavy campaigning, which was briefly halted last week after the shock slaying of British MP Jo Cox.

Scotland voted 62 per cent in favour of staying in the EU and is likely to press for a new referendum on whether to become independent after its 2014 vote to stay in the U.K.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Thursday’s vote in her country was “unequivocal,” and “makes clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union.”

Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom to share a border with an EU country, also voted by a comfortable margin for Remain.

The U.K. Electoral Commission confirmed the result for Leave just after 7 a.m. local time on Friday.

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Former London mayor Boris Johnson and his wife Marina are photographed as they leave after voting in the EU referendum in London, after being in Scotland earlier in the day. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

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