Brexiteer Boris Johnson far ahead in first round of contest to replace UK PM

Credit: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON

Boris Johnson, who has pledged to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31, edged closer to power on Thursday when he won by far the most support from Conservative Party lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace Prime Minister Theresa May.

By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON, June 13 (Reuters) - Boris Johnson, who has pledged to deliver Brexit on Oct. 31, edged closer to power on Thursday when he won by far the most support from Conservative Party lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace Prime Minister Theresa May.

Three years since voting 52%-48% to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom is heading towards a possible crisis over Brexit as most of the candidates vying to succeed May are prepared to leave on Oct. 31 without a deal.

But the British parliament has indicated it will try to thwart such a no-deal exit - a step cartoonists regularly portray as driving over a cliff and that investors warn would send shock waves through financial markets and the world economy.

Johnson, the face of the official Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, won the support of 114 Conservative lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace May. A total of 313 lawmakers voted.

Of the other 10 candidates in the first round, Jeremy Hunt, currently foreign minister, garnered 43 votes; Michael Gove, currently environment minister, garnered 37 votes and Dominic Raab, former Brexit minister, won 27 votes.

Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, Mark Harper and Esther McVey were knocked out.

Betting markets give Johnson, who has a long record of scandals and gaffes, a 70% probability of winning the top job.

After Thursday's vote, Johnson said: "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."

The second round is due on June 18 with further ballots planned for June 19 and June 20 until there are just two candidates. 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.

Johnson kicked off his official campaign on Wednesday with a pledge to lead Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 and a warning to his divided Conservative Party that "delay means defeat".

"After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31," Johnson, a 54-year-old former foreign minister and London mayor, said then. "I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome."

Johnson, whose unconventional style has helped him shrug off a series of scandals in the past, has won over much of his party by arguing that only he can rescue the Conservatives by delivering Brexit.

The EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May last November, and Ireland has indicated it is not willing to change the Irish border "backstop" that upset the Northern Irish party which props up May's minority government.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Stephen Addison and Janet Lawrence)

((guy.faulconbridge@thomsonreuters.com; 07825218698;))

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