Boris Johnson Thursday won the highest number of votes in the first round of the UK's leadership poll, securing his position to succeed outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, with the field of candidates narrowed to seven from 10.
The 54-year-old former Cabinet minister received 114 votes in the first round of a secret ballot of Tory MPs held in the House of Commons, followed by UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in second place with 43 and environment secretary Michael Gove third with 37 votes.
Three contenders – Mark Harper, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey – were knocked out of the race after failing to secure the minimum requirement of 17 votes.
It leaves seven candidates in the fray for the second round of voting next week, including former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab in fourth place with 27 votes, home secretary Sajid Javid fifth with 23, health secretary Matt Hancock sixth with 20 and international development secretary Rory Stewart in last place with 19.
The two most popular MPs from among the seven will be put to the wider Tory party members in a final vote later this month, with the winner of the contest to succeed May in Downing Street expected to be announced in the week of July 22.
"Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the Conservative and Unionist Party for your support. I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go," said Johnson, after the results were announced by the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee, in charge of the election process.
A large number of supporters of fellow pro-Brexiteers McVey and Leadsom are now expected to fall in behind Johnson, who was widely expected to sail through the first round of voting
McVey said she would speak to the remaining candidates before deciding who to give her support.
Stewart, who just scraped through, said he was "absolutely over the moon" to have secured enough votes to survive the first ballot, claiming that it would now be "neck and neck going into the next round".
Tory MPs on either side of the Brexit divide have been picking their candidates to back, with Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak among the Indian-origin backers of Boris Johnson.
Each of the candidates' stand on Britain's exit from the European Union (EU) will be the defining factor, as Brexit was the issue that ultimately led to May being forced to announce her date for departure from Downing Street.
May officially stepped down as the leader of the Conservative Party on June 7 but remains as Prime Minister until her successor is chosen.
The seven candidates eyeing Downing Street are also trying to make a serious policy pitch in an attempt to sway as many Tory MPs as possible, with Johnson claiming a strong track record of getting things done as a former Mayor of London.
Pakistani-origin Javid is using his position as UK home secretary to pledge an improved visa offering for overseas students and professionals after Brexit.
Ahead of the vote on Thursday, he admitted feeling snubbed by being the only senior Cabinet minister not to be invited to Buckingham Palace banquet hosted for US President Donald Trump during his state visit last week.
"The Prime Minister [Theresa May] is proud to have appointed Sajid Javid as the country's first Muslim home secretary," a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement, amid speculation that Javid was snubbed because of his religion, given Trump's well-publicised anti-Muslim comments.
Whereas candidates in the past needed just two MPs supporting them, the Tory party's influential 1922 Committee – which conducts the election process – decided to change the rules earlier this month in a bid to speed up the contest, requiring a minimum of eight MPs for each candidate.
The next round of Tory party voting is now scheduled for June 18, followed by June 19 and 20 to narrow down the contenders one by one until only two are left.
Under the new rules, candidates will need to win the votes of at least 32 MPs in the second ballot to proceed.
The final two will be put to the over 120,000 members of the wider Conservative Party in a vote from June 22, with the winner expected to be announced a month later.