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Boris Johnson builds on lead in British prime minister race

LONDON — Britain’s governing Conservative Party narrowed the race to become the country’s next prime minister to three candidates on Thursday, and is set to pick the final two contenders before the end of the day.

Boris Johnson, a former foreign minister and ex-mayor of London, built on his already commanding lead, taking 157 of the votes cast by 313 Conservative lawmakers in their fourth round of voting — a simple majority of the total.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt came next, with 61 and 59 votes respectively. Home Secretary Sajid Javid came fourth with 34 votes and drops out.

Another vote later will select the final two contenders, who will go to a by-mail ballot of all 160,000 Conservative Party members nationwide.

The winner of the contest, due to be announced the week of July 22, will become Conservative leader and prime minister, replacing Theresa May.

The result is a boost for Gove, who had trailed Hunt in third place through three previous rounds.

“I think Michael has the momentum,” said lawmaker Guy Opperman, a Gove supporter. He said Gove “is the right one to be challenging Boris Johnson.”

Many in the party doubt that anyone can beat Johnson, a quick-witted, Latin-spouting extrovert admired for his ability to connect with voters, but mistrusted for his erratic performance, and record of inaccurate and sometimes offensive comments.

Hunt, who has held several senior government posts, is considered an experienced and competent minister, but unexciting.

Gove is a sharp performer and could come out best in head-to-head debates with Johnson, his longstanding frenemy. The two men led the “leave” campaign Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, but later fell out when Gove scuttled Johnson’s bid to become prime minister by deciding to run for the job himself.

READ MORE: Who will inherit the Brexit fight? A guide to the UK’s prime minister race

The move left him with a lingering taint of treachery in the eyes of some Conservatives.

All the candidates are vowing to lead Britain out of the European Union, a challenge that defeated May. She quit as Conservative leader earlier this month after failing to win Parliament’s backing for her Brexit deal.

Brexit, originally scheduled to take place on March 29, has been postponed twice amid political deadlock in London. The candidates differ on how they plan to end the impasse.

Johnson has won backing from the party’s die-hard Brexiteers by insisting the U.K. must leave the bloc on the rescheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal to smooth the way.

Gove and Hunt both say they would seek another postponement if needed to secure a deal, but only for a short time.

Critics say none of the candidates’ plans is realistic. The EU is adamant that it won’t reopen the Brexit agreement it struck with May’s government, which has been rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Thursday that “the withdrawal agreement is not going to be reopened.”

He also said there was “enormous hostility to any further extension” of the Brexit deadline among the other 27 EU leaders.

Many economists and businesses warn that leaving without a deal on divorce terms and future relations would cause economic turmoil as tariffs and other disruptions are imposed on trade between Britain and the EU.

U.K. Treasury chief Philip Hammond warned that a no-deal Brexit would put Britain’s prosperity at risk and leave the economy “permanently smaller.”

“The question to the candidates is not ‘What is your plan?’ but ‘What is your plan B?’ Hammond said in extracts from a speech he is giving later in the day.”