Theresa May stormed ahead in the race to become the next prime minister, winning the backing of half of all Conservative MPs in a first round contest that saw Stephen Crabb drop out of the race and endorse her after he slipped into fourth place.
The home secretary won the support of 165 MPs while Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister, came second in the contest with 66, beating the justice secretary, Michael Gove, into third place on 48. Fifth-place finisher Liam Fox, on 16 votes, was eliminated.
Just over an hour after the result was declared, Crabb said he was offering May his “wholehearted support”, arguing that her ability to secure the backing of 165 MPs showed that she was the only candidate who had any hope of unifying the party and country.
The work and pensions secretary, who secured 34 votes, said the leadership contest should proceed as planned unless others voluntarily backed out, but he said it was important that the race was as short as possible. “I think, given the seriousness of the situation, the quicker we have a new and strong prime minister in place, the better,” he said.
Fox, the former defence secretary, who was automatically knocked out of the contest after coming fifth, said he did not regret standing and would now “stress the need for experience”, as he threw himself behind May despite the fact that they were on opposite sides of the EU referendum debate.
The fact that only three candidates are left means that the party’s 330 MPs will vote in one more round on Thursday before two are selected to be put to a vote of grassroots members.
Tory politicians said the result placed the party on track for an “all-women shortlist”, with Leadsom 18 votes ahead of Gove. She has attracted support from many Brexiters who want to see someone who campaigned to leave the EU in charge of the country.
Gove has struggled to gain momentum since he killed Boris Johnson’s chances of becoming the next leader by abandoning his campaign at the last minute to run himself. The former London mayor threw his weight behind Leadsom on Monday, boosting her campaign in a move that one MP described as “revenge served cold”.
Gove’s supporters said he would not be pulling out of the race, with the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, saying that the country needed a “sensible, leave supporter” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. Gove himself said he was “delighted by the support” and insisted that he offered an optimistic vision.
But one MP said he was “toast”, arguing that his reception at a party hustings on Monday night “was so chilly the temperature dropped by 10 degrees”. Johnson’s closest supporters reacted with fury to the way that Gove withdrew his support, with Ben Wallace, Johnson’s former campaign manager, accusing the justice secretary of having an “emotional need to gossip”, particularly after a drink.
May said she was pleased by the result and very grateful to her colleagues, adding: “There is a big job before us: to unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone.
“I am the only candidate capable of delivering these three things as prime minister, and tonight it is clear that I am also the only one capable of drawing support from the whole of the Conservative party.”
Some of Leadsom’s supporters claimed that Gove had done better than expected and questioned whether the home secretary had leant support to his campaign, preferring to be up against him in the final two.
One poll for Conservative Home suggested that despite May’s strong lead with MPs, it could be a much closer contest with Leadsom when it comes to party members. A number of MPs expressed concern that the energy minister’s supporters included those most obsessed with Europe on the right of the party, such as Bill Cash and John Redwood.
Other supporters were anxious that MPs might try to exclude Leadsom by voting strategically in the next round. Nadine Dorries said: “I would really hope in Westminster that it is one place tactical voting would not take place because I think it is dishonourable. We are talking about a future prime minister and the future of our country. It is a huge responsibility. Each MP should vote for what they believe is morally the right thing to do for the country.”
May’s supporters said she disapproved of tactical voting. Damian Green said: “I don’t think there has been any tactial voting and with every round that passes the risk of that reduces. We are selecting a prime minister and people should be voting for what they want.”
Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, gave a sense of the arguments that May’s supporters will make in the coming days. “It shows she’s the one who can unite the party. The other candidates got particular sectors, but she’s got remain and leave, north and south. I think someone with such a broad reach of support will be right for the country,” she said.
But Leadsom’s supporters said it was right for someone who had supported Brexit to be the next prime minister. Chris Heaton Harris said that she had “strong opinions” but that made her a strong leader and that she had won the support of a few MPs who backed remain in the referendum.
May later followed in Gove’s footsteps by publishing a summary of her tax return, revealing that she earned £112,426 in employment income in 2014-15, with an additional £617 in interest and £5,419 in dividends. She gave £685 to charity.
The publication of the documents, which reveal that she banks with Coutts, piled pressure on Leadsom to reveal her own financial affairs.
Leadsom was also at the centre of a controversy about some of her previous comments about workers’ rights. It emerged she called in 2012 for the minimum wage and maternity rights to be axed for businesses that employ fewer than three people.
“I envisage there being absolutely no regulation whatsoever – no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights – for the smallest companies that are trying to get off the ground, in order to give them a chance,” she said in the House of Commons.
There was criticism from a former colleague about how senior her positions had been in banking and a controversy around claims, strongly denied, that she retweeted a message that said the UK was “overrun with foreigners”.
Heaton-Harris responded to the criticism of his favoured candidate by saying: “Andrea has shown she might now become a strong second place runner in this race and maybe people feel uncomfortable with that.”
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