Britain’s leadership contest entered its finale Monday with the favourite Boris Johnson facing more defections from ministers over his Brexit plan.
The month-long contest between former London mayor Johnson and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is being decided by fewer than 200,000 grassroots members of the governing Conservative Party.
The winner will have three months to resolve a three-year Brexit crisis that could damage economies on both sides of the Channel and determine the fate of generations of Britons.
The voting window shuts at 5;00pm (1600 GMT). The new party leader will be announced on Tuesday and take over as prime minister on Wednesday.
Both candidates have had a rocky end to a campaign whose closing stages are being waged against a backdrop of a high-stakes standoff with Iran in the Gulf.
Finance secretary Philip Hammond announced Sunday that he would make a point of resigning before Johnson becomes prime minister because of his threat to take Britain out of the EU by an October 31 deadline without a deal.
Pro-EU Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan announced Monday that he was also quitting ‘in anticipation of the change on Wednesday’.
‘It is tragic that just when we could have been the dominant intellectual and political force throughout Europe, and beyond, we have to spend every day working beneath the dark cloud of Brexit,’ he wrote in his resignation letter to outgoing prime minister Theresa May.
London newspapers were filled with speculation that at least a half-dozen lower-ranking ministers may also jump ship over the coming days.
But Johnson doubled-down on his pledge to take Britain safely out of the EU with the help of a new technological fix for avoiding a hard border with EU member Ireland.
‘They went to the Moon 50 years ago. Surely today we can solve the logistical issues of the Irish border,’ Johnson wrote in his weekly column for The Daily Telegraph.
Hunt has also faced criticism over his handling of Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf on Friday.
Several ministers accused him Sunday of devoting too much time to his leadership challenge and not enough on his diplomatic duties.
May was due to chair a meeting of Britain’s COBRA emergencies committee to prepare a response to the standoff in what will be one of her final acts in office.
Hunt is expected to update parliament on the situation in the Gulf at around 1430 GMT.
An online poll of 1,199 Conservative Party members conducted Friday and Saturday by the Conservative Home website put Johnson on 73 per cent.
Bookmakers give Hunt around a one in 20 chance of winning.
The Conservatives command a razor-thin majority in parliament’s lower House of Commons and Johnson’s opponents — both within and outside the party — are keen to scupper his leadership.
Johnson’s pledge to take Britain out of the EU with our without a deal has upset pro-EU government ministers and frightened the markets.
The pound is trading near a two-year low against the dollar and the euro, and parliamentarians are plotting for ways to stop Johnson from taking Britain out of the EU without a strategy for unwinding 46 years of intricate ties.
Conservatives MPs like Hammond have hinted they are prepared to bring down their own government rather than accept leaving the EU without an agreement.
‘I cannot accept the idea of leaving with no deal on October 31,’ Hammond said on Sunday.
Justice Secretary David Gauke also said Sunday he would quit the government if Johnson became prime minister.
May’s tumultuous three years in office will end once she appears in parliament on Wednesday for her weekly question-and-answer sessions.