Rivals race to catch Boris Johnson as UK Tory race narrows

LONDON (AP) — Britain's Conservative Party was set to kick one more candidate out of the contest to become the country's next prime minister on Wednesday, as rivals scrambled to catch front-runner Boris Johnson.

Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign secretary, has a big lead after two rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers with many Brexit supporters rallying behind his insistence that Britain should leave the European Union as scheduled on Oct. 31.

The five-strong field will be narrowed in more elimination votes Wednesday and Thursday, with the two top candidates going to a runoff of about 160,000 party members across the country. The winner, expected to be announced in late July, will replace Theresa May as party leader and prime minister. May stepped down as Conservative leader earlier this month after failing to secure Parliament's approval for her Brexit deal.

Johnson is all but guaranteed to be one of the two finalists. He won 126 of the 313 votes cast on Tuesday, and on Wednesday won the backing of ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who was eliminated from the race the day before.

"Boris will make sure we leave the EU on time," Raab said.

One of the remaining candidates, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, said he was talking to Environment Secretary Michael Gove about combining forces.

He said the question is "who is best able to politely and respectfully defeat Boris Johnson."

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid are also in the race.

The five candidates to replace May have all vowed to succeed where she failed and lead the country out of the EU. They differ widely on how to do that — and critics say none of their plans is realistic.

The EU says it won't reopen the Brexit agreement it struck with May's government, which has been rejected three times by Britain's Parliament. Many economists and businesses say 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.

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.

He said during a TV debate on Tuesday that there would be a "catastrophic loss of confidence in politics" if Brexit was delayed any further. The U.K.'s withdrawal, originally set for March 29, has been pushed back twice amid political deadlock in London.

Javid, like Johnson, says he would try to leave the EU without an agreement rather than delay Brexit beyond Oct. 31. Gove and Hunt both say would support another postponement if needed to secure a deal, but only for a short time.

Stewart has ruled out a no-deal Brexit, saying instead he would try for a fourth time to get Parliament's backing for May's unpopular deal.