The former foreign secretary takes a commanding lead in the contest to become Britain's next prime minister.

Conservative MP Boris Johnson speaks during his Conservative Party leadership campaign launch in London on June 12, 2019.
Conservative MP Boris Johnson speaks during his Conservative Party leadership campaign launch in London on June 12, 2019. (AFP)

Boris Johnson, who has pledged to deliver Brexit on October 31, surged 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.

Johnson, a former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner, secured 114 of 313 votes cast in the round, which 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.

No-deal Brexit?

Three years since voting 52 percent to 48 percent 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 October 31 without a deal.

But the British parliament has indicated it will try to thwart a no-deal exit, which investors warn would send shock waves through financial markets and the world economy.

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

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 Conservative leader and British prime minister.

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 May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.

'Get Brexit done'

Britain's EU departure was originally due to take place on March 29, but has been delayed to October 31 because of the political deadlock in London.

Johnson vowed on Wednesday that as prime minister he would "get Brexit done," either by renegotiating May's rejected Brexit deal or by leaving the EU on October 31 without an agreement.

EU leaders are adamant that the agreement won't be altered, and economists warn that a no-deal departure would cause economic chaos for the UK.

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.

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

Johnson kicked off his official campaign on Wednesday with a pledge to lead Britain out of the European Union on October 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, the 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 rejected by parliament three times. 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. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies