LONDON (AP) — Political healing after Britain's vote to leave the European Union seemed a distant prospect Friday, as Justice Secretary Michael Gove ramped up his Conservative leadership bid but a senior colleague urged him to step aside.
Gove's surprise entry into the leadership race led former London Mayor Boris Johnson — his erstwhile ally in the EU "leave" campaign — to drop out on Thursday.
Spelling out his plans in a speech Friday, Gove said he should be the next prime minister because Britain needs to be led by someone who genuinely believes in leaving the European Union.
Gove said he had been advocating a British exit, or Brexit, for 20 years. Johnson was a recent convert to the cause, and Gove's leading rival for the leadership, Home Secretary Theresa May, backed the "remain" campaign.
"The best person to lead Britain out of the European Union is someone who argued to get Britain out of the European Union," Gove said. "This country voted for change, and I am going to deliver it."
Gove is up against May and three others to succeed David Cameron as party leader. The winner of that contest automatically becomes Britain's next prime minister — and the person responsible for negotiating the country's historic yet tricky exit from the 28-nation EU.
Gove had been expected to back Johnson for the top job, and some Conservatives are furious at his betrayal.
Kenneth Clarke, a former justice secretary, said Friday that Gove "would all do us a favor if he stood down now and speed up the process" of finding a successor to Cameron, who announced his resignation after losing the referendum to keep Britain in the EU.
Clarke told the BBC "one of the first priorities for a leader of a party and certainly a prime minister is that you should have the trust, as far as possible, of your colleagues."
Casting himself as a reluctant candidate, Gove said "I did almost everything I could not to be a candidate for leadership of this party."
But he said while Johnson had campaigned "with passion and brio," he had concluded the flamboyant former mayor did not have what it took to be prime minister.
Several Cabinet ministers have announced their support for May, considered a tough politician capable of standing up to EU officials.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said "her track record shows that when Theresa arrives in Brussels, Europe's bosses sit up and listen."
Conservative lawmakers will whittle the field down to two before the final decision is made by party members. The winner will be announced Sept. 9.
The result of last week's referendum has rattled Britain's economy and divided the country — 52 percent of voters wanted to leave the EU, while 48 percent voted to remain. Scots in particular are upset, since they voted by a strong majority to remain in the EU but their voices were drowned out by the much larger number of English who wanted to leave.