LONDON (AP) — The flamboyant, divisive Boris Johnson took a commanding lead Thursday in the contest to become Britain’s next prime minister, winning by far the largest share of support in the first round of voting by Conservative Party lawmakers.
Johnson, a former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner, secured 114 of the 313 votes cast by Conservatives in the House of Commons, a ballot that reduced the field of candidates from 10 to seven . His successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, trailed with 43 votes, followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove with 37.
The result exceeded the expectations of Johnson’s team and makes him almost certain to be among the final two candidates who will be put to a vote of 160,000 party members nationwide. The winner will become both the new Conservative Party leader and Britain’s next prime minister.
Johnson thanked supporters and tweeted: “I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go.”
Three candidates were eliminated. Lawmakers Esther McVey, Mark Harper and Andrea Leadsom all failed to reach the threshold of 17 votes needed to get to the next round.
The contest is dominated by the issue of Britain’s stalled departure from the European Union, with all the contenders promising to succeed where departing Prime Minister Theresa May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.
May quit as party leader last week after failing to secure Parliament’s backing for her Brexit divorce deal. Britain’s EU departure was originally due to take place on March 29, but has been delayed to Oct. 31 because of the political deadlock in London.
Johnson vowed Wednesday that as prime minister he would “get Brexit done,” either by renegotiating May’s rejected Brexit deal or by leaving the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement.
“Delay means defeat” for the Conservatives, he said.
EU leaders, however, are adamant that the agreement won’t be altered, and economists warn that a no-deal departure would cause major economic disruption for the U.K. and the EU economies.
Johnson made a failed attempt to become prime minister three years ago in a contest won by May. This time around, his tough line on the EU has won him the support of many Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, who prioritize leaving the bloc above all other issues.
He’s also being backed by Conservative moderates on Europe, who calculate that he’s the most likely leader to win a future U.K. general election in which the Conservatives will be squeezed by Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party on the right and the opposition Labour Party on the left.
But rivals argue that Johnson’s record of misleading or untrue statements, verbal blunders and haphazard performance in high office make him unfit to lead the country.
During the country’s 2016 EU membership referendum, Johnson campaigned on the inaccurate claim that Britain sends the EU some 350 million pounds ($444 million) a week, money that could instead be spent on the nation’s National Health Service.
In 2017, when he was foreign secretary, he said incorrectly that a British-Iranian woman imprisoned in Iran was a journalist, damaging attempts to secure her release. Johnson also faced criticism last year for comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes.”
After Thursday’s result was announced, Hunt tweeted: “The stakes have rarely been higher for our country. This serious moment calls for a serious leader.”
Conservative legislators will hold further elimination rounds of votes next week until two contenders remain. Those two names will then be put to a postal ballot of party members, with the winner due to be announced the week of July 22.
In addition to Johnson, Hunt and Gove, four other contenders remain in the race: ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and International Development Secretary Rory Stewart.
Stewart, who came seventh with 19 votes, said he was delighted to still be in the race. His call for compromise on Brexit and his refusal to support a no-deal exit make him a longshot. But he has run a clever, energetic campaign, traveling the country and appealing directly to voters as he positioned himself as the “anti-Boris” candidate.
“I feel really inspired and encouraged and desperate to do more for the people who are supporting me out there,” Stewart said.
Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership race at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit