May wins first round of voting in contest to replace Cameron as PM

Theresa May surged into the lead in the race to succeed David Cameron as prime minister last night, gaining the support of half of all Conservative MPs in the first round of voting.

May, the Home Secretary, won 165 votes while Energy minister Andrea Leadsom gained 66, Justice Secretary Michael Gove came third with 48, Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb won 34 votes and Liam Fox achieved 16.

Crabb last night voluntarily pulled out of the race after Fox was eliminated. Both men said they were now backing May.

There will be further rounds of voting on Thursday and next Tuesday, when the list will be whittled down to two candidates to be put to the party's 130,000 members across the country.

Last night's results mean that the battle is now on between Leadsom and Gove to achieve the all-important second place spot, and go through along with May to the membership stage.

Gove refused to join Crabb in withdrawing last night, emphasising his Cabinet experience and track record on backing leaving the EU.

There is speculation in Westminster of a 'plot' in which May is 'lending' supporters to Gove in order to avoid a contest against Leadsom.

But some moderate MPs fear that right-winger Gove could beat May in the membership stage of voting, with the front-runner eventually losing, as has been the case in a number of relatively recent Tory contests.

Yesterday, the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke was caught on camera by Sky News saying that Gove would go to war with "at least three countries at once" while fellow veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind said: "As long as Gove doesn't come in the final two I don't mind what happens."

In the highly entertaining clip, Clarke also describes Theresa May as a "bloody difficult woman".

David Cameron was the only Tory MP not to vote, with Number Ten sources saying he is choosing to remain "neutral".