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Boris Johnson Shows Strength in Conservative Leadership Contest

LONDON — Boris Johnson finished well ahead of his rivals on Thursday in the first round of balloting among Conservative lawmakers in the race to replace Theresa May as the party’s leader, taking a significant step toward becoming Britain’s next prime minister.

In an unexpectedly convincing victory, Mr. Johnson, who was elected mayor of London for two terms, secured 114 votes from the 313 Conservative lawmakers; his closest competitor, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, had 43.

If, as seems likely, Mr. Johnson maintains his current level of support in subsequent rounds of voting, he would be guaranteed a place in the final list of two candidates, one of whom will ultimately be selected by Conservative Party members.

That puts him in a very strong position to succeed Mrs. May, given that he is popular with Conservative activists who generally give him a warm reception at party conferences and who largely favor Mr. Johnson’s tough stance on Brexit.

Most analysts believe that the contest is Mr. Johnson’s to lose and perhaps with that in mind he has avoided broadcast interviews and given just one news conference during which he took only six questions. Those tactics appear to have paid off in Thursday’s voting, confirming his position as the clear favorite and — barring mishaps or gaffes — effectively turning next week’s voting into a contest for the right to join him on the shortlist of two.

Nevertheless, the position of front-runner is historically treacherous in Conservative Party leadership races that, over the decades, have invariably produced upset winners. Mr. Johnson’s opponents believe that he will face more pressure public scrutiny, and that he could yet trip up before the ultimate choice is made.

There are likely to be at least two more ballots before the final two candidates are named next week, and it remains an open question who will emerge as Mr. Johnson’s strongest rival.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, came in third on Thursday with 37 votes, followed by Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, with 27; Sajid Javid, the home secretary, with 23; and Matthew Hancock, the health secretary with 20. Three candidates — including the two female contenders — were eliminated under rules that required them to secure at least 17 votes; their supporters will be courted by the seven remaining contenders.

Rory Stewart, the international development secretary whose centrist campaign against a no-deal Brexit has won praise, survived the first ballot by winning 19 votes, exceeding the expectations of many.

Survival in the first ballot could be significant because broadcasters are planning TV debates among the remaining candidates, giving them an opportunity to appeal to a wider audience and raise their profile for the future.

Mr. Johnson has not committed to taking part in the debates, and has the least to gain from them. His campaign will have to weigh the dangers of participation against the inevitable charges of running scared if he refuses to do so.

Mr. Gove had been considered Mr. Johnson’s main rival until his campaign was seriously hurt at the start by an admission that he used cocaine two decades ago, a revelation that opened him to accusations of hypocrisy because of his hard-line stance on drugs as a former education and justice secretary. Given that stumble, he will probably be satisfied with his performance, not far behind Mr. Hunt, who had seemed to be gaining momentum.

But there are relatively few votes among the other surviving candidates so the shape of the race for second place is unlikely to become clear until the next ballot, scheduled for Tuesday, which will force out at least one more contender. To survive the next round, candidates will need at least 33 votes.

Mr. Johnson has charisma and a record as a vote-getter, from his London mayoral campaigns. But he has emerged in recent years as a far more divisive figure, having spearheaded the Leave campaign for the 2016 Brexit referendum and then backing a hard Brexit. His career has been marked by a succession of gaffes, including homophobic and sexist remarks, and he failed to make an impact during his time as foreign secretary.

Nevertheless, Conservative lawmakers appear to see him as their best chance of winning back voters who defected en masse to the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, during European Parliament elections last month.

So far, Mr. Johnson has been vague on how he would deal with Britain’s most pressing challenge, the Oct. 31 deadline for Brexit. On Wednesday he stressed that he was not aiming for a departure from the bloc without any agreement, something that analysts say would involve severe economic risks for Britain.

However, Mr. Johnson has argued for Britain to prepare vigorously for a “no deal” Brexit, saying it would provide leverage in negotiations with the European Union over the withdrawal. According to some news media reports, he has also privately promised hard-line Brexiteers that he would keep open the possibility of suspending Parliament to force through a no-deal departure because a majority of lawmakers have previously voted against that outcome.

On Thursday, Mr. Stewart compared the idea of suspending Parliament to the actions of King Charles I that preceded the English civil war of the 17th century and that led eventually to the king’s decapitation. While he did not raise that possibility, Mr. Stewart said that if Mr. Johnson, as prime minister, did suspend Parliament, lawmakers would convene in a nearby building.

“This Parliament would meet whether he locked the doors or not, and we would bring him down,” Mr. Stewart told Sky News.

Source: NYT > World

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