Boris Johnson in firing line after emphatic first round victory
By John Goodrich
Boris Johnson won a clear lead in the first round of the contest to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and, probably, British prime minister on Thursday – but scrutiny of the front-runner is now expected to intensify as rivals aim to trip up the gaffe-prone former foreign secretary.
Johnson won 114 of 313 votes, which would be enough to guarantee him a place in the final two candidates if sustained to the final round of voting.
But the former London mayor, whose 2016 leadership bid imploded before it officially was launched, has campaigned cautiously, limiting public appearances in the hope of avoiding mistakes.
Johnson – who has faced criticism for refusing to take part in live media interviews – is now firmly in the crosshairs of the six other remaining candidates ahead of round two on June 18.
Jeremy Hunt (43 votes), Michael Gove (37 votes), Dominic Raab (27 votes), Sajid Javid (23 votes), Matt Hancock (20 votes) and Rory Stewart (19 votes) on Thursday evening signed a joint statement committing themselves to taking part in televised debates – Johnson will be empty-podiumed if he refuses to take part.
Supporters of rival candidates have piled pressure on the former foreign secretary to sign up to the debates on Sunday and Tuesday. Hunt-backer Amber Rudd said he had a "duty" to take part, and Raab-voter David Davis said it was "very important" all candidates join the debates.
The plan for Johnson's rivals is now to put Johnson, who is often accused of a poor grasp of detail, under the spotlight. Stewart-supporter David Gauke asked: "What would it say about any candidate that they are frightened of that kind of scrutiny? If they have something to hide they should not be running."
As examination of each candidate's platform increases, the battle is also on to hoover up the votes of the three knocked out in the first round, hard Brexiteers Andrea Leadsom (11 votes) and Esther McVey (9 votes) as well as the moderate Mark Harper (10 votes).
A further 20 votes could be in play if Hancock, the health secretary, drops out of the running after a disappointing first round vote. He is reported to have held discussions with other camps about lending them his support to stop Johnson. Javid may also come under pressure to withdraw, having fallen well short of the 33 votes needed to progress from round two to three.
Thursday's vote – in which Johnson scored as many votes as his next three challengers combined – together with a new ConservativeHome survey placing him on 54 percent among Conservative Party members, puts the former foreign secretary in a clear pole position.
After round one it looks like the only likely obstacle to a Johnson victory is Johnson himself. His rivals will be working hard to increase the pressure on the front-runner in the coming days – otherwise they'll be battling for second place.