LONDON • The public face of Brexit, Mr Boris Johnson, will fight former remainer and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to become Britain's next prime minister in a critical contest for the country and the European Union.
The pair will spend the next month battling for votes among the 160,000 grassroots members of the ruling Conservative Party, after Environment Secretary Michael Gove was knocked out of the contest on Thursday evening. The winner will be announced in late July.
The run-off comes after five rounds of voting among the party's Members of Parliament whittled down a field of 10 candidates last week to the final pair on Thursday. Mr Johnson won the votes of 160 of his colleagues, compared with Mr Hunt's 77. Mr Gove scored 75.
Suspicions were raised of vote lending because Mr Johnson increased his tally in the final round by just three, even though at least four MPs who had earlier supported Home Secretary Sajid Javid said they would switch to Mr Johnson.
Asked whether there had been vote lending, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said: "Yes, I think there's more churn than the average washing machine."
The Tory leadership election is a pivotal moment for Britain. The winner will have the chance to reshape the country's politics, and could dramatically alter its exit from the EU, which is due to take place in four months' time. For the EU, the prospect of a Johnson victory would be their worst nightmare. Many European officials blame Mr Johnson for Brexit - he led the 2016 referendum Vote Leave campaign - and regard him as a dishonest populist intent on wrecking the bloc.
The Tory leadership election is a pivotal moment for Britain. The winner will have the chance to re-shape the country's politics, and could dramatically alter its exit from the EU, which is due to take place in four months' time.
"I'm deeply honoured to have secured more than 50 per cent of the vote in the final ballot," Mr Johnson, 55, tweeted. "Thank you to everyone for your support! I look forward to getting out across the UK and to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country, and create a brighter future for all of us."
The contest follows Mrs Theresa May's resignation as Conservative leader after her failure to get the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU ratified in a divided Parliament.
Without an automatic majority in the House of Commons, whoever leads the Conservatives next will find the parliamentary mathematics equally perilous. That has led some to suggest an election will follow, perhaps later this year.
Mr Johnson said he is determined to deliver Brexit by the Oct 31 deadline. He said he would prefer to leave with no deal - despite the economic damage it would cause - than allow the divorce to be delayed again. This has made him the hero of the party's hard-line euro-sceptics who refused to back Mrs May's deal and want a quick, sharp split from the bloc.
Still, he softened his rhetoric in recent days, saying he would "make sure" the country leaves on "terms that protect the UK and protect the EU as well". In a debate on Tuesday, he declined to guarantee the country would leave on Oct 31.
Mr Hunt, who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 but now says he backs Brexit, is open to delaying exit day if it helps deliver a deal and an orderly departure. But he, too, has said he would take a no-deal divorce over no Brexit at all.
The electorate who will choose the next Tory leader are the paid-up members of party. They are more eurosceptic than the rest of the British population.
Mr Hunt, 52, is seen as the underdog in this final contest. Over the next four weeks, he and Mr Johnson will take part in more than 15 hustings events across Britain, starting in Birmingham this afternoon.
Both candidates are pledging to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the EU and get a better one before the deadline for leaving the bloc.
At an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, leaders reiterated that the withdrawal arrangement Mrs May negotiated with the bloc last year will not be reopened, and that their patience with Britain is wearing thin.
"There is enormous hostility to any further extension," said Irish Premier Leo Varadkar.