The former mayor of London was the clear favourite among the party’s 313 MPs in a second secret ballot, held on Tuesday afternoon, storming ahead with 126 votes, 80 ahead of his nearest rival, Jeremy Hunt.
The race is over, however, for Dominic Raab, who with 30 votes failed to meet the 33-vote threshold necessary to continue to the next round.
Whoever wins the competition to become the leader of the Conservatives, the party that is currently in power, becomes by default the next prime minister of Britain as the country prepares to leave the European Union, or Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this month formally stepped down as party leader after her authority to govern collapsed following several failed attempts to win Parliament’s approval for a negotiated deal to leave the EU.
The MPs’ secret votes will continue this week until the candidates are whittled down to just two, when the choice of who will lead the country of some 65 million people will be put to the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party.
“The question is, as contenders are gradually eliminated and their votes are passed on to the frontrunners, will anyone have the numbers to seriously challenge or beat Johnson?” said Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, in central London.
“He has very much appealed to members of the party with uncompromising stances on leaving the European Union. He’s seen by many of them – if there is a general election at the end of all this – as the only person who can unite the different factions within the party and avoid the party being completely destroyed.”
Johnson has positioned himself as a “hard Brexiteer”, having first made his name as a Europe correspondent. Sacked by The Times for making up a quote, he became Brussels columnist for the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, where he became “one of the greatest exponents of fake journalism”, according to former EU external affairs commissioner (and former Conservative MP) Chris Patten.
He has also used outright bigotry in his writing, using the words “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” when referring to Africans. He has referred to gay men as “tank-topped bumboys” and insinuated that US President Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” for Britain due to his being “part-Kenyan”.
Johnson was given a small boost on Monday, when Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who received 20 votes in the first ballot of MPs, dropped out of the contest and endorsed the frontrunner.
Of the remainder of the pack, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt received 46 votes, Environment Secretary Michael Gove got 41, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart secured 37 and Home Secretary Sajid Javid scraped through to the next round with 33.
“Probably the biggest surprise has been Stewart,” said Al Jazeera’s Barker.
“He’s a long way down the pack, but he has increased his support from just 19 MPs in the first round of voting to 37 in a few days. From the start, he was regarded as a political outsider and a moderate, but he did particularly well in the first televised debate on Sunday.”
Arch-Brexiteer Raab, once thought to be Johnson’s closest rival in the race, dropped out on Tuesday. He was a principal architect of May’s withdrawal agreement, yet the day after it was presented to the cabinet, he resigned as Brexit secretary, saying he could not support the deal he had helped to negotiate.