Britain's next PM will be female as Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom make the final two in Tory leadership contest
Britain is to have its second female Prime Minister after Conservative party members were given the choice between Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.
The winner, to be announced on September 9th, will face one of the most difficult tasks in post-war history, renegotiating Britain's place in world.
In the second ballot of Conservative MPs in the leadership contest, Mrs May won the support of 199 MPs, against 84 MPs for Mrs Leadsom.
Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, was eliminated after he received the backing of just 46 MPs, two fewer than had voted for him in the first round.
Because of the scale of support among the parliamentary party - largely because of her experience of running the Home Office for the last six years - Mrs May is now the front runner to become the country's first woman Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher.
However, unlike Mrs Leadsom she backed remaining in the European Union in the recent referendum campaign, which may prove unpopular among Tory rank and file.
In a statement outside the House of Commons, Mrs May said that the size of her lead in the contest showed that the Conservative party can “come together” under her leadership.
Mrs May also pledged “to make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us”.
She said: “I have said all along that this election needs to be a proper contest. And now it is time for me - and my team - to put my case to the Conservative Party membership.”
Mrs May said that she would provide “strong leadership to negotiate the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union, to unite our Party and our country”.
Meanwhile, Mrs Leadsom said that she was “absolutely delighted”.
She added: “The great news is we have an all-female shortlist with no positive discrimination or anything, isn't that fantastic?”
The result caps a disastrous campaign for Mr Gove, who chose to stand as leader at the last minute effectively forcing Boris Johnson to pull out of the race, but will now not be in the race to become Prime Minister.
Speaking last night, Mr Gove, who declined to say whom he will be backing, said the next leader would be “a female prime minister who has formidable skills and I know whichever one of the two wins they will lead this country well”.
The next leader will also be the first to be educated at a state school since Michael Howard – now Lord Howard of Lympne – who quit after the 2005 general election as party leader.
Before the result was announced the two campaign teams had fired their first shots.
Mrs May said that the “inexperienced” Mrs Leadsom's plans to allow European Union nationals who are already in the UK to remain here after Brexit meant that foreign criminals could not be deported if she became prime minister.
In an interview, Mrs Leadsom had said that EU nationals who arrive in the UK after she became prime minister might not be allowed to remain indefinitely, prompting fears of a rush of EU migrants to come to the UK before the end of the campaign on September 9
Mrs Leadsom also made a direct pitch to the Tory grassroots by pledging a vote to legalise fox hunting, a review of the HS2 rail line and stating that she believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, rather than between a same-sex couples.
Mrs May and Mrs Leadsom will spend the next nine weeks travelling around the country trying to win the support of the party's 150,000 members.
On Thursday night the campaign formally got underway with the two candidates speaking to Conservative associations in Northamptonshire and Kent.
But more than 40 MPs are now supporting a call by former party chairman Grant Shapps to shorten the race so that it concludes within weeks, rather than by September 9, to give the UK leadership in the months after the Brexit vote.
Mrs Leadsom's team oppose the idea, believing they need more time for their lesser known candidate to win voters over.
Iain Duncan Smith, a supporter of Mrs Leadsom, said he was “incredibly proud” that his party had two “strong woman candidates going to the country”.
He said: “We will have a woman Prime minister. The Conservative Party, yet again, leading the way on this.
"It says to women all over the country you can get to the top. I have two daughters, it really means a huge amount to me to have two women standing now and being the Prime Minister."
Lord Tebbit, who served in the Thatcher Cabinet, said it is “what's in the head that counts”, not whether the candidate is a woman or a man, adding:
"I helped to make Margaret Thatcher leader of the Conservative party because she was better than any of the other candidates, all of whom were male. The same is true today."
Boris Johnson, who spoke alongside Mrs Leadsom to activists in her South Northamptonshire constituency, said the fact the Tories will have another female leader proved the Tories were “the most progressive party in Britain”.
He added: “I want to offer particular congratulations to Andrea Leadsom on her stunning achievement.
“She is now well placed to win and replace the absurd gloom in some quarters with a positive, confident and optimistic approach, not just to Europe, but to government all round.”
Mrs May, who earlier this week relished in the description of her as a “bloody difficult woman” by former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke, was praised by her supporters.
Chris Grayling, the chairman of Mrs May’s campaign, told The Daily Telegraph that Mrs May would use the large number of MPs who backed her to win round members.
He said: “This vote gives Theresa a really strong mandate from MPs. She is clearly the person they believe is best suited to lead us.
“We know need to win the argument in the country that she is by far the best and most experienced candidate to do a difficult job at a difficult time.”
Amber Rudd, one of Mrs May's backers, has dismissed Mrs Leadsom's support in the Parliamentary party as "not in the same league" as those who backed Home Secretary.
Separately there was a boost for Mrs Leadsom on Thursday night when Leave.EU, one of the pro-Brexit campaigns which is backing Mrs Leadsom, published a survey of 5,000 Tory members which found that 56 per cent supported the energy minister against 44 per cent for Mrs May.
It came as the row over Mrs Leadsom’s CV covering the time she worked in the City continued as she admitted that she had only ever managed between 40 and 50 staff, rather than the “hundreds” as claimed by her supporters.
The result capped a remarkable day in Westminster, which started with around 200 supporters marching along the Thames from an office block where she was giving a speech to Parliament, chanting “Leadsom for Leader”.
Meanwhile, Philip Hammond, the Foreign secretary, vowed to begin informal talks with EU countries about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living abroad within days.
He told MPs he was "very happy" to deliver the message that "EU nationals are welcome in the UK and we recognise the contribution they have made".