Boris Johnson, who has pledged to deliver Brexit on October 31, has surged closer to power by winning by far the most support from Conservative lawmakers in the first round of the contest to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Three years since voting 52-48 per cent 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.
While parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn would hurt financial markets and the world economy, some of those running say it may be the only way for Britain to leave the bloc without further delay.
Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the European Union 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.
"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," Johnson said on Twitter.
His closest rivals were: Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, who won 43 votes; Michael Gove, environment minister, with 37 votes and Dominic Raab, former Brexit minister, on 27 votes.
Sajid Javid, interior minister, came fifth with 23 votes. Matt Hancock won 20 votes and Rory Stewart 19. Three were knocked out: former leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper and Esther McVey.
Betting markets give Johnson, who has a long record of scandals and gaffes, a 70% probability of winning the top job.
Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign minister, has spent weeks wooing Conservative lawmakers, staying out of the spotlight with a low-key campaign at odds with his flamboyant publicity stunts of the past.
But his spokesman, while celebrating a higher-than-expected number of supporters, said there was still "a long way to go in the contest and you have to hold the numbers to go into the next rounds and that's the challenge".
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. There had been speculation that the contest could be accelerated due to Johnson's strong lead but there was no immediate sign of rivals bowing out of the race.
Australian Associated Press