Rivals to be Britain's next prime minister are holding private talks over joining forces in an attempt to stop the pro-Brexit favourite, Boris Johnson, running away with the contest, people familiar with the matter said.
Two of the candidates who are struggling for support - Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Health Secretary Matt Hancock - met to discuss their options after Johnson took a huge lead in the race for the Conservative Party leadership in the first round of voting.
Johnson's six rivals are lagging far behind him after Thursday's initial ballot of MPs and talks between some of them have been taking place over consolidating their campaigns, according to three people close to the discussions. No deals have yet been done, the people said.
In the first round of the ballot, Johnson - who has vowed to deliver Brexit with or without a deal - won the support of 114 Tory members of Parliament out of the 313 who voted. That was far ahead of his nearest rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, with 43.
The contest is not over and more votes among MPs are scheduled next week to narrow down the field of seven remaining candidates. But Johnson's dominant performance means that the favourite is now certain to be one of the two contenders who make it through to the final run-off stage in the contest, if he can avoid a major mishap.
"I am delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go," Johnson wrote after his victory in the first round.
A Johnson victory would radically reset British politics and redefine the UK's policy on its troubled divorce from the European Union. As the face of the pro-Brexit campaign in 2016, he has called for a clean, quick break with the EU, resigning from Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet last year in protest at her plan to retain the bloc's trade rules.
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Johnson says he's determined to deliver on the 2016 referendum result and take Britain out of the EU by the deadline of October 31, even if that means leaving without a deal. Some of Johnson's rivals disagree.
To Deliver Brexit
Hancock rejects the option of a no-deal Brexit, saying it is not a "credible" threat to make because Parliament won't allow it. But he won only 20 votes in the first round of the election, while Javid won just 23 votes.
In order to progress through the second round of voting, candidates must win the backing of at least 33 MPs. That seems tough for Javid and Hancock, who will weigh their options further Friday.
The leadership contest in the UK's ruling Conservative Party follows May's decision to resign last month after she was unable to deliver Brexit. The deal she's struck with the EU was rejected three times in Parliament, yet leading candidates to replace her insist they can negotiate a better one before the Oct. 31 deadline.
The UK's Brexit-induced political crisis has seen Conservative and opposition Labour politicians quit their jobs, while new parties have emerged at the extremes of the debate on EU membership. On Thursday night, one senior MP - Chuka Umunna - announced he had joined the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning for a second referendum.
Umunna was a Labour MP until February, when he left in protest at the official opposition's unwillingness to oppose Brexit. It's another boost for the Lib Dems, who came second in last month's European Parliament elections, despite being only a relatively minor grouping in British national politics.