Interior minister Theresa May and eurosceptic rival Andrea Leadsom emerged on Thursday as the two candidates who will battle to become Britain’s next prime minister and lead the country out of the European Union. May won 199 votes and Leadsom 84 in a second ballot of lawmakers of the governing Conservative party. Justice Secretary Michael Gove took just 46 votes and was eliminated from the race.
“This vote shows that the Conservative Party can come together, and under my leadership it will,” May told supporters after the results were announced.
Grassroots Conservatives across the country will now vote to decide whether May or Leadsom becomes Britain’s first woman prime minister since Margaret Thatcher was forced from office in 1990.
The result of the contest is expected by Sept. 9, meaning businesses and investors must endure two more months of uncertainty over who will lead the huge task of disentangling Britain’s economy from the EU while trying to safeguard trade and investment.
Prime Minister David Cameron said last month he was stepping down after voters, many of them swayed by concerns over high immigration and a desire to reclaim ‘independence’ from Brussels, rejected his entreaties to keep Britain in the EU and his warnings that leaving would spell economic disaster.
Investor concerns about the impact of the ‘Brexit’ referendum have mounted in recent days, with asset managers suspending trading in commercial property funds worth billions of pounds after too many people rushed to withdraw their money at once.
The pound sterling steadied on Thursday after two nervous days drove it below $1.30 for the first time in more than three decades. By 1524 GMT it was trading around $1.2933, virtually unchanged on the day.
Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Europe’s largest insurer Allianz, which has around 1.3 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) under management, said the pound could sink towards parity with the dollar unless politicians got a grip.
“After the Brexit referendum, the UK has to urgently get its political act together,” El-Erian told Reuters in a telephone interview. “‘Plan B’ depends on the politicians in London and across the Channel, but so far they have not stepped up to their economic governance responsibilities.”
The Bank of England, which warned before the referendum that a Brexit vote would push Britain into a “material” economic slowdown, could cut interest rates as soon as next Thursday.
Interior minister May, 59, has served for the past six years in one of the toughest portfolios in government. Leadsom, 53, is a junior energy minister who has never served in cabinet.
But despite her strong lead in the vote of MPs, May is far from assured of winning the race for Downing Street. During the referendum campaign she took a low-key stance in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, while Leadsom was a prominent voice in the winning Leave camp.
That could play well with grassroots party members, who have strong eurosceptic leanings.
Leadsom, who entered parliament only six years ago, said on Thursday her top priority would be to guarantee tariff-free trade with the EU after leaving.
But the EU is likely to insist that this would only be feasible if Britain continued to allow other EU nationals to live and work freely in Britain, an arrangement that has pushed immigration to record levels and was a powerful factor behind the success of the Leave side in the referendum.
Leadsom has put her 25 years’ experience working in financial services at the centre of her campaign to become leader, having spent a decade working at Barclays Bank and fund manager Invesco Perpetual.
But some of her career credentials are being called into doubt. Reuters spoke to five former Invesco colleagues, including four in senior management positions, who said Leadsom did not have a prominent role or manage client money.
She told the BBC that questions about her career record were “ridiculous” and her CV was “all absolutely true”.
Justice minister Gove shocked fellow-Conservatives last week by abruptly withdrawing his support for former London mayor Boris Johnson, previously seen as the leadership front-runner, and effectively forcing him from the race. Widely portrayed in the media as an act of treachery, that may have damaged his own bid, along with past interviews in which he had said he was neither interested in the prime minister’s job nor well suited to it.