Theresa May early favourite to lead Britain

Home Secretary's main rival is top Brexit campaigner Michael Gove in race to replace Cameron as British PM

LONDON • Support grew yesterday for British Home Secretary Theresa May's bid to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron and lead the country out of the European Union, even though her main challenger and top Brexit campaigner, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, insisted that he was the best man for the job.

Dozens of Conservative MPs have backed Ms May's bid to take over from Mr Cameron, who announced his resignation after losing a referendum last week in which 52 per cent of Britons voted to quit the EU. Britain has been plunged into extraordinary political turmoil since the vote, with the ruling Conservatives and opposition Labour party in disarray and the country deeply polarised.

EU leaders have called for a swift divorce, fearful of the impact of Britain's uncertain future on economic growth and a potential domino effect in eurosceptic member states.

"The decision has been taken, it cannot be delayed and it cannot be cancelled, now they have to face the consequences," French President Francois Hollande said yesterday after meeting Mr Cameron on the sidelines of the Battle of the Somme centenary ceremonies in France.

Ms May is the clear favourite to replace Mr Cameron as Conservative leader and therefore prime minister - a switch that requires no new general election under the British system. Mr Gove, who torpedoed former London mayor Boris Johnson's chances for the top party post by announcing his own candidacy on Thursday, is seen as her main rival.

"This country voted for change and I am going to deliver it," he said in a speech in which he repeatedly stressed Ms May's support for the Remain campaign.

The five Conservative Party leaders in the race to be the next British prime minister are (clockwise from far left) Minister of State for Energy Andrea Leadsom, Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, Home Secretary Theresa May, former defence sec
The five Conservative Party leaders in the race to be the next British prime minister are Minister of State for Energy Andrea Leadsom (left), Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb (second from left), Home Secretary Theresa May (centre), former defence secretary Liam Fox (right) and Justice Secretary Michael Gove (second from right). The winner of the leadership contest will be announced on Sept 9 and will be Mr David Cameron's successor. The new PM will have to start formal talks for Britain's exit from the European Union. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"The best person to lead Britain out of the European Union is someone who argued to get Britain out of the European Union," he said, adding that he would clamp down on immigration if he becomes leader.

Mr Gove, the intellectual face of the Leave campaign to Mr Johnson's charismatic frontman, insisted he would not be rushed into formal talks on leaving the EU, adding: "We will do it when we're good and ready."

Mr Cameron has said he will leave it to his successor to start formal exit talks.

Dr Simon Usherwood, a senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, said the differences of a May or Gove premiership in terms of negotiations with the EU were "likely to be relatively small".

The winner of the leadership contest will be announced on Sept 9.

The pound crept back up yesterday after the Bank of England hinted it was ready to cut interest rates in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Highlighting the uncertainty the Leave vote has created for business, low-cost carrier EasyJet said yesterday that it was trying to acquire a certificate to operate in a European country "to enable EasyJet to fly across Europe as we do today".

And Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned that the government would likely scrap its promise to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 due to the fallout from Brexit.

"We will continue to be tough on the deficit, but we must be realistic about achieving a surplus by the end of this decade," he told business leaders.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Theresa May early favourite to lead Britain'. Print Edition | Subscribe