efe-epaLondon

Prominent Brexiter Boris Johnson strengthened his hand in his bid to become the leader of the British Conservative Party on Thursday, leaving the first round of party voting with more than three times as many votes as his closest three opponents.

Johnson, who had also been the Mayor of London, secured the backing of 114 of the 313 Tory lawmakers who cast their ballot in this preliminary vote to choose the United Kingdom's next prime minister. The candidates in second, third and fourth place took a combined 107.

"Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the Conservative and Unionist Party for your support. I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go," Johnson said in a statement shared on his official Twitter.

Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom, the only two women in the running to take over from Theresa May, who announced her resignation last month after bowing to party pressure over the managing of Brexit, were eliminated in the vote.

Mark Harper was also eliminated, according to Cheryl Gillan, the acting co-chair of the 1922 Committee, the Tory's parliamentary group, said as she read out the results.

Foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, environment secretary, Michael Gove and former Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, trailed the divisive Johnson with the support of 43, 37 and 27 MPs respectively.

They will be joined in the second round of voting by the current home secretary, Sajid Javid, who took 23 votes, health secretary, Matt Hancock (20), and international development secretary, Rory Stewart (19).

Johnson has been a clear favorite to take over the Conservative Party since Theresa May announced she would resign as prime minister in late May as she bowed to party pressure over her management of Brexit.

Work and pensions secretary, who finished bottom of the list on Thursday with just nine votes thanked those who offered her support.

"I am pleased to have had a platform to make a case for Blue Collar Conservatism," she said in a statement. "I will speak to the remaining candidates to see who is best placed to deliver on that program"

Stewart, who uses social media in his campaign to invite members of the public to come and speak to him as he takes a walk, also thanks to his colleagues, adding: "We can win this. Realism, action, unity, trust."

The process of electing the next Tory leader will continue into the coming week with three votes scheduled for June 18, 19 and 20, until only two candidates are left.

From June 22 onward, the two finalists will begin a charm offensive with a series of debates and campaign meetings ahead of a postal vote for Conservative Party's roughly 160,000 cardholders, who will decide the country's next PM that week.

Whoever takes over at the helm of the UK's traditional, center-right party will have to navigate the country's exit from the European Union, which is slated to take place on Oct. 31.

Johnson, who backed the campaign to leave the EU on the run-up to the 2016 referendum, is more hawkish on his Brexit policies than many of the other candidates.EFE-EPA

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