May backed by over half of Tory MPs in leader race - and gets rivals' support
Theresa May last night said she was the only leadership candidate who can unite the Conservative Party and the country in the wake of the Brexit vote, after receiving overwhelming backing from Tory MPs to become the next prime minister.
Ms May established a firm lead, winning the support of more than half of the party's MPs, and, later, the backing of Liam Fox, who was eliminated from the contest, and Stephen Crabb, who withdrew due to a lack of support.
The UK home secretary was backed by 165 MPs in the first round of voting for the next Tory leader, guaranteeing a place in the final run-off ballot of Conservative Party members unless she loses supporters over the next few days.
Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister, was second with 66 votes. Michael Gove, the justice secretary, came third with 48 votes.
Mr Crabb, the work and pensions secretary, received support from 34 backbenchers, and Dr Fox, the former defence secretary, from just 16.
Ms May said: "I am pleased with this result, and very grateful to my colleagues for their support. There is a big job before us: to unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone.
"I am the only candidate capable of delivering these three things as prime minister, and tonight it is clear that I am also the only one capable of drawing support from the whole of the Conservative Party."
Her margin of victory will bolster calls for the other candidates to withdraw and allow her to become leader immediately, to provide stability following the vote to leave the EU.
With Ms May in such a commanding lead, attention will turn to the contest between Ms Leadsom and Mr Gove for second place. Both have insisted they will fight on.
Ms May's allies focused attacks on Ms Leadsom. Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, said her colleague was "a very good junior energy minister" but "you don't need a novice right now".
Ms Leadsom's supporters said they were delighted by the result and that she was now the favourite to make the final two.
They fear Ms May could "lend" votes to the Gove campaign in an attempt to determine who faces her in the run-off. They believe she would prefer a head-to-head with Mr Gove because of his perceived unpopularity among party members after his "betrayal" of Boris Johnson.
David Cameron was the only one of the 330 Tory MPs not to vote and sources last night said that he would remain neutral.
Earlier, Dr Fox had said that he was "disappointed" to have been eliminated, adding, pointedly, that he had "sought to stress the need for experience as the successful candidate will have to take up the reins of government in less than nine weeks". This was taken as a signal that he would not back Ms Leadsom.
Mr Gove's backers insisted he was "still in the fight". But Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, admitted that Mr Johnson's backing of Ms Leadsom - after his own bid was torpedoed by the justice secretary - had been "difficult". (© Daily Telegraph, London)