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British MPs gear up to fight for Tory leadership

With nominations for Conservative party leader closing, ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson is seen as front runner

LONDON : Around a dozen British Conservative MPs will formally throw their hats into the ring in the fight to replace Mrs Theresa May as party leader and prime minister, with her former foreign secretary Boris Johnson seen as the runaway favourite.

Mrs May resigned on Friday as head of the Tory party after her failure to deliver Brexit. Nominations for her successor opened and closed yesterday.

Britain's departure from the European Union, twice delayed and now set for Oct 31, will dominate a contest scheduled to run until late July and has in the past been characterised by shocks.

The new leader of the centre-right party - which won the most seats at the last general election in 2017 - will almost certainly become prime minister, with Mrs May staying in Downing Street in the meantime.

Unofficial campaigning already started weeks ago and Mr Johnson has emerged as the undisputed front runner - although in previous leadership races the early pacesetter has never been victorious.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Environment Secretary Michael Gove are perhaps the best known names of 10 other MPs also in the running.

Each candidate must be nominated by at least eight Conservative MPs. In a series of ballots over the coming weeks, party lawmakers will then whittle down the list of names to two.

The final choice will then be made by more than 160,000 paying party members.

"The obvious big issue is Brexit - there is very little else that preoccupies the Conservative Party at the moment," said politics professor Tim Bale at Queen Mary University of London.

"Boris Johnson is likely to win this election because he is offering the Conservative party members what they want... a no-deal Brexit," he added.

But "whether he can actually achieve that is another matter".

Mr Johnson, 54, a former mayor of London and key figure in the divisive 2016 EU referendum campaign, served as Mrs May's foreign secretary until he resigned last summer over her Brexit strategy.

Popular among grassroots Conservatives, he is less liked by Conservative MPs sceptical of his bombastic style and chequered track record.

Mr Johnson has vowed Britain will leave the EU "deal or no deal" in October and said this weekend he would withhold the Brexit Bill if the EU does not offer improved withdrawal terms.

Mr Johnson also argued only he could defeat leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-EU populist Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party has been poaching Tory voters disgruntled at the party's handling of Brexit.

RIVALS

Mr Johnson's closest rival is seen as Mr Gove, a eurosceptic who also fronted the 2016 Leave campaign.

He turned on Mr Johnson during the last leadership contest in 2016, in a move that ultimately cleared the path for Mrs May.

However, the 51-year-old has become mired in controversy after he admitted - with deep regret - to using cocaine two decades ago.

In contrast to Mr Johnson on Brexit, Mr Gove has said he would delay leaving the EU by "a few extra days or weeks" if needed to seal a new deal.

Another leading contender, Mr Hunt, has vowed to renegotiate the agreement Mrs May struck with Brussels, claiming on Sunday he had received encouraging signals for such a move from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. - AFP

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