Britain is to leave the European Union after a nearly half a century of membership plunging the country into unchartered political and economic territory and almost certainly spelling the end of David Cameron’s political career.
At just after 4.40am in the morning the BBC declared the result for Brexit after a surge in support for leaving the EU confounded predictions and led the pound to fall to its lowest level for 31 years.
Middle England joined forces with the country’s industrial heartlands of the North-east and North-west to comprehensively reject warnings of economic Armageddon and voted to leave.
Support for remain was strongest in London and Scotland but with cities like Sheffield and Sunderland joining with Canterbury, Torbay and Peterborough in favour of Brexit momentum drifted away from remain.
The result will now trigger a process of British withdrawal from the European Union and quite possibly another referendum for an independent Scotland.
Labour said David Cameron should “seriously consider his position”. He is not expected to make a formal statement until after the official result is declared.
The Ukip leader Nigel Farage claimed victory, saying that “dawn was breaking on an independent United Kingdom”. Provocatively he said he hoped the vote would be a catalyst for the complete collapse of the European Union.
The polling expert Professor John Curtice said Labour supporters appeared to have defied pleas from their party to support Britain’s membership of the EU – tipping the scales in favour of Brexit.
With 323 out of 382 local authority areas declared, the Leave campaign had won 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for remain.
“This is a seismic moment for our country,” said the former shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna.
“It will be catastrophic for Britain. It is just so, so terrible,” said Keith Vaz the chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.
The pound fell to the lowest level against the dollar since 1985 while early projections suggest that the FTSE 100 share index will fall by as much as six percent when it opens later this morning.
Among the first areas to declare was Sunderland – which Leave won by 22 percent while Newcastle voted for Remain by a margin of 1 percent – much tighter than predicted. There were also Leave wins in Swindon and Broxbourne.
There was better news for Remain in London, Glasgow and Oxford – but it was not enough to off set worse than expected results elsewhere.
The result confounds a string of polls suggesting a comfortable win for remain.
A YouGov poll of 5,000 people released at ten pm put Remain on 52 percent (up one percent on its last poll) and Leave on 48 (down one).
Senior Labour figures including Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper suggested that the scale of support for Leave was fuelled by discontent with the way the country was heading on issues like wages, jobs and opportunities for the young.
"It's a nation divided and the PM will have a big responsibility - to show he understands what people are saying on the Leave side of the argument," said former Labour leader Mr Miliband.
"Labour faces that responsibility too. As far as Labour voters are concerned, there are two issues. There is obviously immigration, but beneath that there is a whole set of issues about people's lives and the fact that they don't feel politics is listening to them.
Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn told the BBC that he believed David Cameron would have to resign.
"As far as the Prime Minister is concerned I don't see how he is going to remain in his job for very long at all,” he said.
"I think it's very hard for him in those circumstances to remain. If you are the Prime Minister, you've called this referendum, you've laid your reputation on the line and your arguments, I think it's going to be very hard."
Lib Dem former Cabinet minister Sir Vince Cable described holding the referendum as a "very bad call" by the Prime Minister, who failed to understand what happens "when you just throw the cards in the air".
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told BBC News that the Bank of England would have to intervene to prop up the pound.
"Chancellors and shadow chancellors can't comment on sterling but what we can do is have a mature approach to this and say whatever the outcome, we will negotiate the best deal we possible can with regard to our trading partners in Europe and in that way we might give some assurances to the market," he said.