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Defeated rivals back May as she wins half of Tory MPs' votes in race to be next PM

Stage set for an all-woman leadership contest after Andrea Leadsom lands second place and Michael Gove is relegated to third amid scathing remarks from ex-colleague Clarke

Theresa May has become the frontrunner to succeed David Cameron after securing the votes of half of all Conservative MPs in the first round of the Tory leadership battle, as well as the support of rival Stephen Crabb after he dropped out of the race.

The Home Secretary received 165 votes, with former Defence Secretary Liam Fox eliminated after winning the support of just 16 MPs and Mr Crabb dropping out after finishing fourth on 34.

The Work and Pensions Secretary said he was backing Mrs May, insisting “there is only one candidate” to unite the Tories and form a strong government.

Michael Gove, who finished third on 48 behind Andrea Leadsom with 66, vowed to fight on.

Minutes later, Dr Fox also backed Mrs May, telling reporters: “Experience matters”.

Earlier, Mr Crabb told BBC News: “I entered this leadership race with the overriding goal of putting two themes at the heart of the debate — unity for our divided nation and opportunity to tackle disadvantage.

“I’ve taken the decision that I won’t put my name forward to the next round of voting, and instead of that I’ll be lending my wholehearted support to Theresa May, who is overwhelmingly in the best position to be the next prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party.”

The two candidates who top the final round of MPs’ votes will go forward to a postal ballot of party members to select a new Conservative leader and Prime Minister in a contest due to end on September 9.

But Mr Gove stressed the need for a Prime Minister who campaigned for Brexit, unlike Mrs May, and said that he would stay in the race.

He added: “Now that Britain has voted to leave, I think the country deserves to have a leader who believes in Britain outside the European Union and who also has experience at the highest level of government.

“I hope that in the days to come, I will be able to convince all my colleagues that I should be one of the candidates that Conservative party members can choose from.

“I think they should have a choice between two candidates of experience, two candidates who have delivered in government departments.”

The Home Secretary’s dominant first-round performance and Energy Minister Mrs Leadsom’s strong showing in second place paves the way for an all-woman run-off.

Welcoming her victory, Mrs May said: “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, and tonight it is clear that I am also the only one capable of drawing support from the whole of the Conservative Party.”

But despite her overwhelming support among MPs, Mrs May will be all too aware that in the two previous contests conducted under the present rules, initial frontrunners Kenneth Clarke and David Davis went on to be rejected by grassroots members.

As a supporter of the Remain camp in last month’s EU referendum, the Home Secretary is vulnerable to claims by Eurosceptic rivals that the largely Brexit-backing membership requires a leader who actively campaigned for Leave.

She has also faced criticism over her refusal to give firm assurances that European Union nationals would be allowed to remain in the UK, and was accused by former Cabinet colleague Ken Clarke of being a “bloody difficult woman” with little knowledge of foreign policy.

In unguarded comments caught on camera by Sky News, Mr Clarke discussed the leadership candidates with fellow Tory veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind, saying: “Theresa is a bloody difficult woman, but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher.”

He added: “I don’t think either Andrea Leadsom or Boris Johnson actually are in favour of leaving the European Union.”

The two Tory veterans were scathing about Mr Gove, with Sir Malcolm saying: “I don’t mind who wins as long as Gove comes third.” Mr Clarke, meanwhile, warned that if the hawkish Justice Secretary was in Number 10, “we’d go to war with at least three countries at once”.

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