LONDON — Conservative politician and Home Secretary Theresa May won the first round of voting Tuesday in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister — a position that will include steering the country out of its political and economic crisis following last month’s decision by voters to leave the European Union.
The vote was held solely among lawmakers from Britain’s ruling Conservative Party and was the first in a series of ballots to determine the party’s new leader, who will eventually become prime minister.
Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom won the second largest number of votes. With May and Leadsom in the lead, Britain is potentially on the path to have a female prime minister — the second in its history.
Prime Minister David Cameron, the current party leader, announced his resignation the day after the June 23 referendum on whether to pull out of the E.U. Cameron had backed the campaign to stay in the 28-member bloc, and his resignation set off a dramatic leadership struggle reminiscent of the political drama “House of Cards.”
May, who has served as Britain’s home secretary since 2010, won votes from 165 lawmakers — or more than half of the Conservative parliamentarians who cast ballots. Leadsom, who backed the campaign to withdraw from the E.U., came in second with 66 votes. And Justice Minister Michael Gove won just 48 votes. A fifth candidate, Liam Fox, was eliminated. Late Tuesday, lawmaker Stephen Crabb also dropped out of the race.
Another round of voting is scheduled for Thursday and will whittle the field down further.
May had campaigned for Britain to remain in the E.U. but has vowed to uphold the voters will to leave. She has presented herself as a unifying candidate who can bring together the two camps within the Conservative Party.
“The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high, and the public gave their verdict,” May said last week.
“There must be no attempts to remain inside the E.U., no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum,” she said.
May has promised to enter tough negotiations with Brussels to potentially allow Britain access to Europe’s single market but has also pledged to curb immigration. She has come under fire for saying that she would not be able to guarantee the status of E.U. migrants already living in the United Kingdom, whose future in the country would depend on Britain’s negotiations with Europe.
On Tuesday, Britain’s Sky News channel broadcast footage of two veteran Conservative politicians ridiculing their party’s leadership candidates while waiting to be interviewed. Neither apparently knew that they were being filmed or that their microphones had been turned on.
Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke referred to May as a “bloody difficult woman.”
Of May, Britain’s Observer magazine wrote in 2014 that she “represents a different kind of politician: a calm headmistress in a chamber full of over-excitable public school boys.”
“But you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher,” Clarke said to Conservative politician Malcolm Rifkind, laughing. Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, was popularly referred to as the “Iron Lady” for her strong and often inflexible politics.
As for Leadsom, Clarke said she was an acceptable candidate, “so long as she understands that she’s not to deliver on some of the extremely stupid things she’s being saying.” He did not elaborate on what “stupid things” he thinks Leadsom has said.
Rifkind, for his part, leaned in and said: “I don’t mind who wins as long as Gove comes third. As long as Gove doesn’t come in the final two, I don’t mind what happens.”
The comments added to the high political drama that has played out in Britain recently, felling leaders and would-be prime ministers.
On Monday, the bombastic ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, handed his key endorsement to Leadsom, after onetime ally Gove ousted him from the race last week.
Johnson, who helped spearhead the campaign to leave the E.U., was once the favorite to succeed Cameron. But in a surprise move last week, Gove — a fellow anti-E.U. campaigner and Johnson ally — preemptively announced his own candidacy and declared the flamboyant Johnson unfit to lead.
His maneuvering reshuffled the race. But Johnson’s endorsement of Leadsom — who also served as treasury secretary — appeared to fire back in kind.
“Andrea Leadsom offers the zap, the drive, and the determination essential for the next leader of this country,” Johnson said in a statement Monday.
“Above all, she possesses the qualities to bring together the ‘leavers’ and the ‘remainers,’ ” Johnson said of the two camps within the Conservative Party, which was split over whether to leave the bloc.
Nearly all of the leading faces of the movement to extricate Britain from the E.U. have now either removed themselves from the political playing field or have been cast aside in the vote’s aftermath.
On Tuesday, Belgian politician and E.U. parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt likened Britain’s anti-E.U. figures to “rats fleeing a sinking ship.”
Brian Murphy in Washington and Ylan Q. Mui in London contributed to this report.