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Theresa May clear favourite to be next prime minister as Tories begin voting for new leader

gjjNew poll puts the Home Secretary at the top of the pack of five candidates

Theresa May has opened up a commanding lead in theConservative leadership race, as MPs begin voting in the first round of the contest.

A new poll of Tory members puts the Home Secretary at the top of the pack of five candidates, and in a final round run-off against nearest rival Andrea Leadsom, the poll indicates she would win by 32 points.

The Times/YouGov poll is also encouraging for Mrs Leadsom who, it suggests, would beat rivals Michael Gove and Stephen Crabb convincingly in a final round run-off.

However, Mrs May is, by a significant margin, the candidate to beat. She is regarded as the strongest leader, the most unifying candidate, the candidate with the best economic understanding and the best media performer by Conservative party members.

Conservative MPs will cast their first ballots in the leadership election today, with the candidate with the least votes eliminated by the end of the day. Mrs May currently has the public support of 115 MPs, Andrea Leadsom 39, Michael Gove and Stephen Crabb around 25 each and Liam Fox fewer than 10.

The new poll also reveals a collapse in support for Michael Gove among the Tory membership, following his 11th hour decision to pull out of Boris Johnson’s campaign and run himself. Last week Mr Gove was regarded positively by 63 per cent of members – this has now tumbled to 32 per cent.

Mrs May has reached out to the Tory right, writing in the Daily Mail to affirm her commitment to a strong defence policy and renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, to counter the threat of Russian aggression. However, the Home Secretary has suffered the first setback of her leadership bid, with opposition across the political spectrum to her stance on EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, whose long-term residency status she has not been willing to guarantee.

Mrs Leadsom, meanwhile, was boosted on Monday night by a public declaration of support from Boris Johnson. The energy minister is also likely to benefit from the likely elimination of former Defence Secretary Liam Fox from the race today. Both candidates campaigned for Leave and Mrs Leadsom, who is viewed as a more ‘hardline’ Brexit candidate than Mr Gove, is likely to pick up most of Mr Fox’s supporters.

Conservative MPs will vote in another two ballots after today, eliminating the candidate with the least votes at each turn. The two remaining candidates will face a ballot of party members with the winner announced on September 9