LONDON - Boris Johnson got a boost in his bid to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday when one of his former rivals backed him and said he was almost certain to win the contest.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who dropped out of the race on Friday after winning 20 votes in the first ballot of Conservative lawmakers, said Johnson was the best candidate to lead the party.
"Boris has run a disciplined campaign and is almost certainly going to be our next prime minister," Hancock said in an article in The Times newspaper. "My view is that we need to start coming together sooner rather than later."
The Times said Hancock was a strong contender to be Britain's next finance minister if Johnson wins the race to replace May.
The Brexit crisis could deepen under a new British leader as Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, has promised to lead the United Kingdom out of the EU with or without a deal.
The British parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn could roil markets and shock the world economy, while the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement that May agreed.
Johnson, the favorite to replace May, won the support of 114 Conservative Party lawmakers in the first round of the leadership contest. A total of 313 lawmakers voted.
His closest rivals were: Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister, who won 43 votes; Michael Gove, environment minister, with 37 votes and Dominic Raab, former Brexit minister, on 27 votes.
"Boris is the front-runner," Gove told BBC radio. "But we need to make sure that he is tested." Johnson has so far kept a low profile during the leadership race and did not take part in a candidates' debate on Sunday.
The second round of voting will be on Tuesday with the result due around 1700 GMT. Any candidate with 32 votes or fewer is eliminated. If all candidates have more than 32 votes, the one with the fewest is eliminated.
If Johnson does win the top job and does go for a no-deal Brexit, a constitutional crisis could be on the horizon if parliament tries to block such a departure.
Raab has said parliament could be suspended if necessary, a possibility he refused to rule out on Sunday in a debate with other contenders. But the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said it was fantasy to think that the lower house of parliament could be pushed aside.
"It's a joke!" Bercow told French newspaper Le Figaro. "The idea that the British parliament can be pushed aside when such a crucial decision is to be made is fantasy."
But Bercow, whose comments were reported in French, cautioned that the default outcome if no agreement had been ratified and no extension is negotiated was that Britain would leave without a deal to smooth the transition.
"In other words: we will not be able to prevent a hard Brexit," Bercow said.
The current deadline to leave the EU is Oct. 31.
The likelihood of a no-deal exit has jumped in the past month, according to economists in a Reuters poll.
British companies look set to cut their investment by the most in 10 years in 2019 as the Brexit crisis drags on, a survey showed.