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U.K. Tories Vote for May’s Successor After Johnson Plays It Safe

Alex Morales and Tim Ross
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U.K. Tories Vote for May’s Successor After Johnson Plays It Safe

(Bloomberg) -- Conservative Members of Parliament will cast ballots Thursday in the first round of voting to find a successor to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, a day after the favorite, Boris Johnson, played it safe as he launched his leadership campaign.

Ten candidates are vying for the top job, and at least one is certain to be eliminated in the secret ballot, with a result expected at about 1 p.m. in London. As well as the last-placed politician, those failing to garner at least 17 votes from the party’s 313 MPs will be out of the running, leaving the others to face more ballots next week.

Johnson has won more public pledges of support from his Conservative peers in Parliament than any of his nine rivals for the party leadership, and he launched his campaign on Wednesday by softening his tone on Brexit, insisting he wants to be friends with Europe, promising to stand up for business, and presenting a moderate face to his colleagues.

The result of the Conservative leadership election -- expected by the end of July -- will reshape the British government and set the course of the country’s difficult divorce from the European Union. Johnson has become the darling of the party’s pro-Brexit wing, after he quit May’s cabinet last year in protest at her plan to retain close links to EU trading rules.

Many of Johnson’s supporters, including among the party’s 160,000 members who will choose the next leader, favor a hard break with the bloc of 27 European countries. They believe he is the man to deliver it.

In the weeks leading up to Johnson’s formal campaign launch, he kept a deliberately low profile. His gaffes and missteps have stirred controversy many times in his career, and as the favorite in the leadership race he has the most to lose from any unwanted headlines or scandals.

A row over drugs has seriously damaged his rival Michael Gove, and Johnson swerved a question about his own past drug use when he launched his leadership campaign Wednesday.

For most of his speech, Johnson made a concerted effort to present himself as a realistic and pragmatic candidate, leaving out the usual flow of jokes that he’s become known for.

‘May Be Bumps’

“I’m not going to pretend to you now that everything will be plain sailing,” said Johnson. “There will be difficulties and there may be bumps in the road.”

Read more: How the Tory Rivals for PM Reckon They Can Fix Brexit

He said he is sure he can deliver a “sensible, orderly Brexit” by renegotiating a new agreement with the EU before the end of October deadline and insisted he is not aiming for a no-deal split. Still, no-deal has to remain on the table, he said.

According to one MP present, Simon Clarke, Johnson later told Tories at a private hustings event inside Parliament that he’s “strongly not attracted” to the idea of suspending Parliament to ensure it can’t block Britain’s departure. The Times reported late Thursday, that Johnson has discussed suspending Parliament with the European Research Group caucus of pro-Brexit Tory MPs, and that he hasn’t ruled it out. It’s an option leadership rival Dominic Raab has said publicly he’ll keep open, provoking outrage from some opponents.

In other developments:

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said at a Bloomberg event that it will be “very difficult or impossible” to leave the EU on Oct. 31. The next prime minister will run into the same problems in Parliament and in Brussels that May faced, he said. Home Secretary Sajid Javid launched his campaign Wednesday. “Boris Johnson is yesterday’s news, he’s been around a long time,” Javid said. “It’s not just about the message, it’s about the messenger, too.”Former Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom told ITV’s "Peston" show late on Wednesday that she’s "very optimistic" she has enough support to get past the first round of voting.Former Chief Whip Mark Harper told the same show he’s "confident of getting through" based on what colleagues have told him.An attempt by the opposition Labour Party to take control of parliamentary proceedings in order to block a no-deal Brexit failed on Wednesday. But former Attorney General Dominic Grieve warned any new premier seeking to push for a no-deal exit would face attempts to bring down the government -- and he could join that revolt.

MPs will begin voting at 10 a.m Thursday. Further votes in the contest are scheduled for June 18, 19 and 20, and the final two candidates will be put to a vote among the grassroots party members, with the aim of electing a new leader -- and prime minister -- by the week of July 22.

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Robert Hutton and Thomas Penny.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net;Tim Ross in London at tross54@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Emma Ross-Thomas, Robert Jameson

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