Britain is on track to have its second female leader after the ruling Conservative Party narrowed down its choice of someone to succeed outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron to two women.
Home Secretary Theresa May and Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom emerged Thursday as the two leading candidates to take over Cameron’s job in September. Cameron announced his resignation two weeks ago, just hours after British voters went against his advice and chose to withdraw the country from the European Union in a close-run referendum.
May, 59, is the clear frontrunner, earning the most votes – 199 – in a balloting of Conservative lawmakers that concluded Thursday. The lesser-known Leadsom was, to some observers, a surprise second-place finisher with 84 votes, easily beating out Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who garnered 46 votes and who was therefore eliminated from the race.
The contest now shifts to the Conservative Party rank and file, the 150,000 card-carrying party members whose votes will determine their next leader and thus prime minister. The winner between May and Leadsom will be announced Sept. 9.
Either way, Britain will have only its second female leader in history. The first was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also a Conservative, who held the office from 1979 to 1990 – Britain’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century.
May, who supported Britain’s continued membership in the E.U. but did not campaign prominently for the “Remain” side in the referendum, has stressed her experience as a senior Cabinet member. As home secretary, she is responsibility for public security, immigration and other domestic affairs.
“We need proven leadership to negotiate the best deal for leaving the European Union, to unite our party and our country, and to make Britain a country that works not for the privileged few but for everyone,” May told reporters and cheering supporters Thursday.
Leadsom, 53, who worked in high finance before becoming a member of Parliament, was little-known by the general public before becoming one of the highest-profile advocates for Britain’s pullout from the E.U. She insists that, in light of the referendum result, the next prime minister should be someone who supported the Brexit side, but she has been hit by accusations that she exaggerated her career on her official résumé.
Relegation to third place was a comedown for Gove, 48, who had been considered May’s strongest challenger. His entry into the race threw the Conservatives into a dither last week, because it effectively torpedoed the ambitions of former London Mayor Boris Johnson to succeed Cameron. As the star campaigner for Britain’s exit from the E.U., Johnson was widely expected to gallop to the premiership, but Gove, his fellow Brexit campaigner, withdrew his support for Johnson and threw his own hat into the ring.