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Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be the U.K.'s next prime minister

Britain's governing Conservatives picked the two candidates Thursday who will square off to become the next prime minister of the U.K. to replace Theresa May. The party will now choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Michael Gove, Sajid Javid eliminated in successive rounds of voting to choose Conservative leader

Jeremy Hunt, left, and Boris Johnson are the two finalists selected Thursday in a race to lead the governing Conservative Party and become Britain's next prime minister. (Matt Dunham/Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

Britain's next prime minister will be a man in his 50s who went to Oxford University — either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, the two finalists selected Thursday in a race to lead the governing Conservative Party.

Johnson, a flamboyant former foreign secretary and ex-mayor of London, topped a ballot of 313 Conservative lawmakers with 160 votes and is runaway favourite to become the party's next leader. He has led in all five voting rounds of a contest that began last week with 10 contenders.

Hunt, Britain's current foreign secretary, came a distant second with 77 votes and will join Johnson in a run-off decided by 160,000 party members across Britain.

Johnson tweeted that he was honoured to have gotten more than half the votes cast by party lawmakers. He said "I look forward to getting out across the U.K. and to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country and create a brighter future for all of us."

Hunt said on Twitter that he knew he was the underdog "but in politics surprises happen."

The winner is due to be announced the week of July 22.

Gove goes

Hunt edged out Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who got 75 votes, after Home Secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated in the fourth round of voting earlier Thursday.

The result spares Johnson a showdown with Gove, his former ally-turned-archrival. The two men jointly led the Leave campaign in Britain's 2016 EU membership referendum, but Gove scuttled Johnson's subsequent bid to become prime minister by deciding to run for the job himself, in a race ultimately won by May.

This time around, many in the party doubt that anyone can beat 55-year-old Johnson, a quick-witted, Latin-spouting extrovert admired for his ability to connect with voters, but mistrusted for his erratic performance in high office and his long record of inaccurate, misleading and sometimes offensive comments.

Michael Gove, shown leaving Parliament on Thursday, was the last candidate dropped from the race before the vote goes to the wider Conservative Party leadership. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

"Boris will say absolutely anything in order to please an audience," historian Max Hastings told the BBC on Thursday. "Boris would have told the passengers on the Titanic that rescue was imminent."

Hunt, who has been culture secretary and health secretary, is considered an experienced, competent minister but unexciting. The 52-year-old politician bills himself as the so-called serious candidate, in an implicit contrast to Johnson. He will try to halt Johnson's momentum by picking away at his rival's plans for Brexit as the two speak to party members at meetings across the country over the next few weeks.

Different positions on Brexit in 2016

Both Johnson and Hunt vow they will lead Britain out of the European Union, a challenge that defeated outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. She quit as Conservative leader earlier this month after failing to win Parliament's backing for her Brexit deal.

Brexit, originally scheduled to take place on March 29, has been postponed twice amid political deadlock in London.

Johnson has won backing from the party's die-hard Brexiteers by insisting the U.K. must leave the bloc on the rescheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal to smooth the way.

Hunt has said he would seek another postponement if needed to secure a deal, but only for a short time.

Hunt backed the losing Remain side in the 2016 referendum, a disadvantage in a party whose rank-and-file members are overwhelmingly pro-Brexit. Hunt now insists he is determined to go through with Brexit and says his past in business, running an educational publishing firm, gives him the experience to negotiate with the EU.

Johnson — somewhat paradoxically — is backed by some Tory moderates who claim he has the skills to unite the party and win back voters from rival parties on both the left and the right.

Johnson arouses passion in supporters and opponents. A demonstrator dressed as a clown wearing a Boris Johnson mask and holding a placard is shown protesting Thursday outside the Houses of Parliament in London. (Vickie Flores/EPA-EFE)

Boris-backer Robert Buckland said Johnson was "a moderate, open-minded" Conservative.

"The essence of Boris Johnson is a unifier," he said.

But even Johnson's allies admit his record is mixed. He was an energetic ambassador for London as mayor between 2008 and 2016, though critics blasted his backing for vanity projects including a little-used cable car and a never-built "garden bridge" over the River Thames.

A leading figure in Britain's 2016 campaign to leave the EU, he was made foreign secretary by May when she came to power after the referendum. His two years in the job were studded with missteps. He was recorded saying that a violence-torn Libyan city could become a tourism hub once authorities "clear the dead bodies away," and worsened the plight of a British-Iranian woman detained in Tehran by repeating an incorrect Iranian allegation that she was a journalist.

Some have argued that decades of verbal blunders, glibly offensive comments and falsehoods make him unfit for high office. Johnson has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, claimed that "part Kenyan" Barack Obama had an ancestral dislike of Britain, and compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."

'What is your Plan B?': Exchequer criticizes candidates

Critics say neither candidate has a realistic plan. The EU is adamant that it won't reopen the Brexit agreement it struck with May's government, which has been rejected three times by Britain's Parliament.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Thursday that "the withdrawal agreement is not going to be reopened."

He also said there was "enormous hostility to any further extension" of the Brexit deadline among the other 27 EU leaders.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond had harsh words for the candidates on the promises they've made regarding Brexit. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE)

U.K. Treasury chief Philip Hammond urged the remaining contenders to be honest with the public and spell out what they would do if their plans for leaving the European Union falter.

Hammond warned Thursday a no-deal Brexit would put Britain's prosperity at risk and leave the economy "permanently smaller."

"The question to the candidates is not, 'What is your plan?' but, 'What is your Plan B?'" Hammond said in extracts from a speech he is due to give later in the day.

With files from CBC News

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