By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's vote to leave the European Union is a triumph for Nigel Farage, the abrasive anti-immigration politician who tapped into a deep well of popular anger that rivals failed to understand.
On a night that seemed to start badly for the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), with the last opinion polls predicting defeat for the Leave camp in Thursday's referendum, Farage said at first it looked like Remain would win.
But it ended with victory for him and on Friday morning he declared jubilantly that the vote for a British exit from the EU, or Brexit, heralded a new dawn for the nation.
"The EU is failing, the EU is dying. I hope we've knocked the first brick out of the wall. I hope this is the first step towards a Europe of sovereign nation states," he said, predicting that the Netherlands and Denmark would go next.
Not for the first time causing outrage, he said the result had been achieved "without a single bullet being fired".
The comment drew accusations of insensitivity after the killing of pro-EU lawmaker Jo Cox last week, after which a man charged with her murder told a court his name was "death to traitors, freedom for Britain".
But with his blunt approach, Farage has finally achieved the goal he has pursued relentlessly in his 25 years in politics.
"It's been a hell of a long journey, this," he told reporters, recalling that in the first election he contested, in 1994, he came second-from-last, beating only comedy candidate Screaming Lord Sutch by a handful of votes.
"Now there are 17 million people that voted for Brexit. It's a victory for ordinary people, decent people. It's a victory against the big merchant banks, against the big businesses and against big politics."
Farage had languished for years on the fringes of British politics. A member of the European Parliament since 1999, he was best known for trying to disrupt it from within, once telling then European Council President Herman Van Rompuy to his face that he had "the charisma of a damp rag".
REVENGE OF THE "LOONIES"
So marginal was he considered that in 2006 David Cameron, then leader of the Conservative opposition, dismissed UKIP supporters as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly".
But Farage, often pictured holding a pint of beer, always ready to bang the patriotic drum, and above all keen to talk about immigration in blunter terms than others in mainstream politics, reached neglected parts of the electorate.
"People here don't understand," Farage said on Friday morning in Westminster, central London's political district.
"They're too wealthy, they don't get what open-door, mass immigration as a result of EU membership has done to people's wages, to people's availability of getting doctors' appointments, or their kids into local schools. This was the issue ultimately that won this election."
Rob Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University, said Farage had tapped into deep disenchantment with politics among people, particularly those without a university education, who felt left behind by Britain's globalized economy.
"In terms of the impact he's going to have on Britain and its place in the world, he's more significant than most prime ministers have been," Ford told Reuters.
Farage, who as a boy went to a prestigious private school and later worked as a commodities trader, has often been called hypocritical for presenting himself as a man of the people.
But Ford said that was missing the point. He said the fact that Farage left school at 16 and didn't go to university set him apart from almost all other significant British politicians.
"There was something about his manner and way of thinking and way of discussing the issues that completely resonated with non-graduates at a time when they feel that their entire lives are being run by the know-it-alls, the elites, " said Ford.
"He waved the flag, he went down to the pub, he didn't like immigration, he was their man. Simple as that," he said, adding non-graduates, a majority of the population, were fed up with being told what to do by people "who think they're cleverer".
Farage was a key factor in bringing about Brexit.
In 2013, with Cameron now in Downing Street and UKIP increasingly looking like an electoral threat, the prime minister promised an in/out referendum on the EU issue in an attempt to defuse internal party tensions and neuter Farage.
Cameron's strategy looked good after his Conservatives won a parliamentary election in May 2015. UKIP won 4 million votes but, because of the electoral system, got only one parliamentary seat, and Farage failed to win the seat he was contesting.
During the EU referendum campaign, he was marginalized by the official Vote Leave campaign who deemed him too divisive, instead touring the country in a double-decker bus painted purple, the color of UKIP.
He was denounced as inflammatory and misleading, including by senior Vote Leave figures, over a campaign poster that showed a snaking line of Syrian refugees trying to get into southern Europe under the headline "Breaking Point".
But the voters sided with him. On Friday morning, shortly after Cameron announced his resignation, an ecstatic Farage had the last laugh.
"It's right that David Cameron has gone. Not a bad man just on the wrong side of the argument," he tweeted.
(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Timothy Heritage)