Theresa May has established a strong lead in the race to become Britain’s prime minister, securing the votes of exactly half of all Tory MPs in the first round of voting in the party’s leadership contest.
The pro-Brexit energy minister Andrea Leadsom came second in the ballot, making it increasingly likely that the country will soon be run by its second female premier, 26 years after the ousting of Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs May, home secretary, won 165 votes out of a total 330, giving her momentum as Tory MPs began the process of whittling down a list of five candidates to a shortlist of two.
Liam Fox, the former defence secretary was eliminated from the contest with just 16 votes, and Stephen Crabb, work and pensions secretary, quit the contest after finishing fourth with 34.
Mrs Leadsom remains strongly in contention as the flag carrier for pro-Brexit Tories after coming second with 66 votes; she will now battle it out with justice secretary Michael Gove for second place.
Both Mr Fox and Mr Crabb later announced their support for Mrs May, whose position, while commanding, is not unassailable. The final choice will fall to around 125,000 unpredictable Tory members, the majority of whom voted for Britain to leave the EU.
Mrs May was a low-profile supporter of Remain in Britain’s EU referendum, although her reputation as a calm and experienced minister has won her support from across the Brexit divide.
“I am pleased with this result,” Mrs May said. “There is a big job before us: to unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone.”
Her most dangerous opponent is now Mrs Leadsom, a former banker with a strong record of Euroscepticism. Theories abound at Westminster over how the home secretary’s supporters might block her.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader who is backing her, said: “Andrea has built this support from a standing start. She’s got the momentum and will go to the country with Theresa.”
Mrs Leadsom’s supporters suspect that about 15 backers of Mrs May voted tactically for Mr Gove — the minister who destroyed Boris Johnson’s leadership chances — to try to ensure he ends up on the shortlist of two.
Chris Heaton-Harris, a Leadsom supporter, said: “I think Michael has done very well, with a little help from his friends.” The Leadsom camp believes Mr Gove, tarnished by his political assassination of Mr Johnson, cannot win.
Mrs May’s team say they specifically asked supportive MPs not to vote tactically, but accept that some may have ignored the request.
Mr Gove’s allies were happy at coming third, declaring: “We’re in business.”
Commenting on the first-ballot result, Mr Gove said: “Now that Britain has voted to leave, I think the country deserves to have a leader who believes in Britain outside the European Union and who also has experience at the highest level of government.
“I hope that in the days to come, I’ll be able to convince my colleagues that I should be one of the candidates that Conservative party members can choose from. I think they should have a choice between two candidates of experience, two candidates who have delivered in government departments.”
A final round of voting takes place on Thursday, which will send two of the three to be voted on by Tory members around the country.
Mrs May says she wants the leadership contest to go to party members and that it should not be “a coronation”. The result of the ballot of activists will be announced on September 9.
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