May Cements Lead as Tory Race for New U.K. Premier Takes Shape

  • Home secretary ahead among MPs who’ll pick shortlist of two
  • Thousands marched in London on Saturday in support of EU

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May, the front-runner in the race to lead the Conservative party and be the next prime minister, moved closer to her goal as lawmakers lined up behind her.

Whoever wins the leadership race will face some of the most difficult decisions for any U.K. leader since World War II. Nine days after Britain voted to leave the European Union, in a shocking break with a half-century of postwar alignment, the country remains in a state of political limbo with the main opposition Labour Party also engulfed by a crisis. Those opposed to leaving the EU took to the streets of London on Saturday.

May had the backing of 102 fellow Tory lawmakers by Saturday evening, 16 more than she did the day before, according to a tally on the Conservative Home blog. Less clear is the battle for second place. Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb and Justice Secretary Michael Gove each have 21 lawmakers. Energy Minister and prominent Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom also has 21, and perhaps more importantly -- the momentum.

“May has built up quite a lead and it is difficult to imagine her throwing it away or there being anyone else in the contest who is likely to create a surprise,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said in a phone interview.

The candidates will take to the airwaves on Sunday to promote their campaigns. May and Crabb will appear on ITV Television’s “Peston on Sunday,” while Leadsom and Gove are due on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”

While May has said there shouldn’t be a coronation, it’s also possible that a prime minister could be elected in the next two weeks should the leading candidates decide to unite around her after the initial rounds of voting. Many of the party’s 330 members of Parliament have yet to commit themselves publicly.

May has said the best way forward was though a competitive process. “There needs to be a proper contest with a leader elected by the whole party with a proper mandate -- and no coronation brought about by back-room deals,” she said after David Cameron announced he was quitting.

Attempts to reverse the referendum result gathered pace on Saturday, with organizers of the London march estimating that as many as 50,000 people took part in the rally.

“I decided to come to London because I wanted to stand up in solidarity for something this important,” said Megan Ciotti, a 42-year-old from Oxfordshire who took the morning train to London with her 2-year-old son to attend the anti-Brexit march. “We should be able to say we made a mistake and make it right.”

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also reiterated that her government is looking into legal grounds for holding a new vote. “If there is a way to stay in the EU, I am determined to pursue it,” she said in an interview with Greece’s To Ethnos newspaper.

Starting on Tuesday, lawmakers will vote in secret ballots to whittle the list down to just two. Then, the party’s approximately 150,000-strong nationwide membership will make the final choice in a postal ballot, with the result expected by Sept. 9.

May, who is also the bookmakers’ favorite, is seen as a steady hand. She’s ruled out any prospect of going back on Britain’s vote to leave the EU, opening her leadership bid on Thursday by declaring that “Brexit means Brexit.”

“She is tough, hardworking and principled,” said conservative Alex Chalk, a member of Parliament from Gloucestershire. Endorsing May in a posting on his Facebook page, he wrote: “With complex negotiations to come and difficult judgments to make, she is the strong leader our country needs.”

Leadsom could win backing from as many as 30 Boris Johnson supporters as soon as next week, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph reported Saturday, without saying where they got the information. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who backed Brexit, is supporting Leadsom, according to the Conservative Home website.

Leadsom, an ex-financier who has worked for Barclays Plc and Invesco Perpetual, played a prominent role in the “Leave” campaign. Should she make it to the shortlist along with May, Britain would be guaranteed its first female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.

“I genuinely believe that our future is better off outside of the EU,” Leadsom said in an interview with LBC radio after announcing her bid. “It’s a massive chance to strengthen our economy and sort out the issues around free movement.”

The next prime minister must be a “Leave” supporter, Leadsom told the Telegraph. “It’s very difficult for somebody who doesn’t agree with this, who is reluctantly following the wishes of the people,” she said.

Labour’s weekend was also full of post-Brexit maneuvers. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is clinging to his post after losing a vote of no confidence among lawmakers and suffering a mass walkout by his frontbench team. Corbyn is blamed by many in the party for fighting a lackluster campaign to stay in the EU. He’s so far resisted pressure from senior officials to step down, but may face a formal leadership challenge in the coming days -- most likely from his former business spokeswoman, Angela Eagle.

“The implications of Britain’s Brexit vote are becoming clear now,” said Stephen Barber, who teaches public policy at London South Bank University. In both the Tory and Labour parties the fight is “not about the referendum, but about who is most confident, who can restore stability and who can get the best deal from the EU.”

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