Boris Johnson takes strong lead in race for next UK leader

Britain's Conservative Party lawmaker Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during the official launch of his leadership campaign, in London, Wednesday

Britain's Conservative Party lawmaker Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during the official launch of his leadership campaign, in London, Wednesday

Jeremy Hunt Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs leaves 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday,

Jeremy Hunt Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs leaves 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday,

Dame Cheryl Gillan, center, with Charles Walker, center left, and Bob Blackman, center right, read out the results of the first ballot in the Tory lea

Dame Cheryl Gillan, center, with Charles Walker, center left, and Bob Blackman, center right, read out the results of the first ballot in the Tory lea

British Conservative Party lawmaker Boris Johnson leaves his home in London, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Boris Johnson, who ran London as mayor for eight

British Conservative Party lawmaker Boris Johnson leaves his home in London, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Boris Johnson, who ran London as mayor for eight

Britain's Environment Secretary Michael Gove launches his leadership campaign for the Conservative Party in London, Monday June 10, 2019. British Prim

Britain's Environment Secretary Michael Gove launches his leadership campaign for the Conservative Party in London, Monday June 10, 2019. British Prim

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt launches his leadership campaign for the Conservative Party in London, Monday June 10, 2019. British Prime Min

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt launches his leadership campaign for the Conservative Party in London, Monday June 10, 2019. British Prime Min

Conservative leadership contender and Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivers a speech to launch his campaign to become the next Conservative pr

Conservative leadership contender and Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid delivers a speech to launch his campaign to become the next Conservative pr

Conservative leadership hopeful Esther McVey gestures as she arrives for a Bruges Group meeting to discuss Brexit in London, Monday, June 10, 2019.  B

Conservative leadership hopeful Esther McVey gestures as she arrives for a Bruges Group meeting to discuss Brexit in London, Monday, June 10, 2019. B

Britain's Conservative MP Rory Stewart launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister at the Underbe

Britain's Conservative MP Rory Stewart launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister at the Underbe

Mark Harper launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party during a media conference at the Institute for Mechanical En

Mark Harper launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party during a media conference at the Institute for Mechanical En

Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care gestures as he arrives at 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday,

Matt Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care gestures as he arrives at 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday,

Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister, in London, Mond

Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab launches his campaign to become leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister, in London, Mond

LONDON (AP) — 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 first-round voting by Conservative Party lawmakers.

Johnson, a former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner, secured 114 of the 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.

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 departing Prime Minister Theresa May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.

May quit as party leader last week after failing to secure Parliament's backing for her Brexit divorce deal. Britain's 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 on Oct. 31 without an agreement.

"Delay means defeat" for the Conservatives, he said.

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 U.K.

Johnson's tough line on the EU has won him the support of many Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, who put leaving the bloc about all other issues.

He's also being backed by moderates on Europe who calculate that he's the most likely leader to win a future 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 verbal blunders and haphazard performance in high office make him unfit to lead the country. 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.

Last year, Johnson faced criticism last year for comparing Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letter boxes."

After Thursday's result was announced, Hunt 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. They will be put to a postal ballot of party members, with the winner due to be announced the week of July 22.

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.

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Follow AP's full coverage of Brexit and the Conservative Party leadership race at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit