LONDON • Mr Boris Johnson, who has pledged to deliver Brexit come Oct 31, surged closer to power yesterday, winning by far the most support from Conservative lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace Prime Minister Theresa May.
Three years since voting 52-48 per cent to leave the European Union, Britain is heading towards a possible crisis over Brexit as most of the candidates vying to succeed Mrs May are prepared to leave on Oct 31 without a deal.
While Parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn would hurt financial markets and the world economy, some of those in the leadership race say it may be the only way for Britain to leave the bloc without further delay.
Mr Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, won the support of 114 Conservative lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace Mrs May. A total of 313 lawmakers voted.
"Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the Conservative & Unionist Party for your support. I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go," Mr Johnson, 54, said on Twitter.
His closest rivals were: Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt who won 43 votes, Environment Minister Michael Gove with 37 votes, and former Brexit minister Dominic Raab on 27 votes.
CONSERVATIVE LAWMAKERS' SUPPORT
• Former foreign minister Boris Johnson: 114 votes
• Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt: 43
• Environment Minister Michael Gove: 37
• Former Brexit minister Dominic Raab: 27
• Interior Minister Sajid Javid: 23
• Health Minister Matt Hancock: 20
• International Development Minister Rory Stewart: 19
Interior Minister Sajid Javid came fifth with 23 votes.
Mr Matt Hancock won 20 votes and Mr Rory Stewart, 19.
Three were knocked out: former leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, Mr Mark Harper and Ms Esther McVey.
Betting markets give Mr Johnson, who has a long record of scandals and gaffes, a 70 per cent probability of winning the top job.
Mr Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign minister, has spent weeks wooing Conservative lawmakers, staying out of the spotlight with a low-key campaign at odds with his flamboyant publicity stunts of the past.
But his spokesman, while celebrating a higher-than-expected number of supporters, said there was still "a long way to go in the contest and you have to hold the numbers to go into the next rounds and that's the challenge".
The second round is due next Tuesday, with further ballots planned for the following two days, until there are just two candidates left. A postal ballot of the wider Conservative Party membership will then be held to pick a leader.
A new prime minister should be chosen by the end of July.
There had been speculation that the contest could be accelerated due to Mr Johnson's strong lead, but there was no immediate sign of rivals bowing out of the race.
Some were quick to make veiled warnings about the front runner.
Mr Hunt, who has pitched himself as a unifier of both Brexit-supporting and pro-EU Conservatives, warned members of the party that "the stakes have rarely been higher for our country".
"This serious moment calls for a serious leader," he tweeted.
Mr Johnson said that if Britain is prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the EU will bend to his argument to remove the so-called Northern Irish backstop to prevent a return to a hard border with Ireland if there is no agreed future trade deal.
But the EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. On Wednesday, the European Commission said: "In light of the continued uncertainty in the United Kingdom... and the overall domestic political situation, a 'no-deal' scenario on Nov 1, 2019, very much remains a possible - although undesirable - outcome."