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Boris Johnson tops 1st round of U.K. Conservative leadership race

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.

7 of 10 candidates remain in contest to replace Theresa May

Boris Johnson earned the most votes in the first round of the Conservative Party's leadership contest. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

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 secret ballot. His successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, trailed with 43 votes, followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove with 37.

Johnson thanked supporters and tweeted: "I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go."

Seven contenders, including Johnson, remain in the contest to succeed Theresa May as party leader and prime minister:

  • Foreign Affairs Minister Jeremy Hunt.
  • Environment Minister Michael Gove.
  • Former Brexit minister Dominic Raab.
  • Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
  • International Development Secretary Rory Stewart.

Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, Mark Harper and Esther McVey failed to meet the threshold of 17 votes needed to stay in the race.

The contest is dominated by the issue of the U.K.'s stalled departure from the European Union, with all the contenders promising to succeed where May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.

The 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 by the fall deadline 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 EU economies.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May resigns as leader of the Conservative Party on June 7th. But she will stay on as a lame duck Prime Minister until her successor is chosen. Today on Front Burner, CBC Europe Correspondent Margaret Evans on who that successor might be, and what they'll have to grapple with as the country faces down Brexit: "It's a huge, huge mess in this country. People are angry, they're scared, they're tired of it." 23:30

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 (more than $591 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, the foreign secretary, 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 final two names will then be put to a vote of 160,000 Conservative Party members across the country. The result is expected to be announced the week of July 22.

With files from The Associated Press

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