Boris Johnson

Britain’s Conservative Party lawmaker Boris Johnson officially launches his leadership campaign in London on Wednesday. — AP Photo/Frank Augstein

LONDON — The flamboyant, divisive Boris Johnson took a commanding lead Thursday in the contest to become Britain’s next prime minister, winning by far the largest share of support in the first round of voting by Conservative Party lawmakers.

Johnson, a former foreign secretary and leading Brexit campaigner, secured 114 of the 313 votes cast by Conservatives in the House of Commons, a ballot that reduced the field of candidates from 10 to seven . His successor as foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, trailed with 43 votes, followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove with 37.

The result exceeded the expectations of Johnson’s team and makes him almost certain to be among the final two candidates who will be put to a vote of 160,000 party members nationwide. The winner will become both the new Conservative Party leader and Britain’s next prime minister.

Johnson thanked supporters and tweeted: “I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go.”

Three candidates were eliminated. Lawmakers Esther McVey, Mark Harper and Andrea Leadsom all failed to reach the threshold of 17 votes needed to get to the next round.

The contest is dominated by the issue of Britain’s stalled departure from the European Union, with all the contenders promising to succeed where departing Prime Minister Theresa May failed and lead the country out of the bloc.

May quit as party leader last week after failing to secure Parliament’s backing for her Brexit divorce deal. Britain’s EU departure was originally due to take place on March 29, but has been delayed to Oct. 31 because of the political deadlock in London.

Johnson vowed Wednesday that as prime minister he would “get Brexit done,” either by renegotiating May’s rejected Brexit deal or by leaving the EU on Oct. 31 without an agreement.

“Delay means defeat” for the Conservatives, he said.

EU leaders, however, are adamant that the agreement won’t be altered, and economists warn that a no-deal departure would cause major economic disruption for the U.K. and the EU economies.

Johnson made a failed attempt to become prime minister three years ago in a contest won by May. This time around, his tough line on the EU has won him the support of many Brexiteers in the Conservative Party, who prioritize leaving the bloc above all other issues.

He’s also being backed by Conservative moderates on Europe, who calculate that he’s the most likely leader to win a future U.K. general election in which the Conservatives will be squeezed by Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party on the right and the opposition Labour Party on the left.

But rivals argue that Johnson’s record of misleading or untrue statements, verbal blunders and haphazard performance in high office make him unfit to lead the country. — (AP)

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