Three remain in race to be UK Conservative leader as two lowest vote-getters drop out

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The race to succeed Prime Minister David Cameron as leader of the UK's Conservative Party was reduced from five to three Tuesday after a single round of voting.

With the British currency plunging to its lowest point in three decades as a result of last month's vote to leave the European Union, Home Secretary Theresa May scored a substantial victory in the first round of voting to determine who will follow Cameron as prime minister.

Theresa May on Tuesday.

Theresa May on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

May was supported by 165 Conservative members of Parliament (MPs). Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, a supporter of the so-called "Brexit" from the EU, finished second with 66 votes. Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a fellow "Brexit" backer, had 48 votes, MP Stephen Crabb had 34 votes, while former Defense Secretary Liam Fox had just 16 votes and was automatically eliminated.

Later Tuesday, Crabb announced he was withdrawing from the leadership contest and endorsed May, telling Sky News "there is only one candidate now in this race." Fox also backed May following his elimination.

"I intend to work closely with her, to campaign for her and I'm sure she'll be a very fine prime minister of this country," Fox told the BBC.

May's strong showing does not guarantee she will eventually reside at 10 Downing Street, however, as lawmakers will vote until they narrow the field to two candidates and then put the matter to a vote before the entire party membership.

The next round of voting is set for Thursday, with the overall winner to be announced Sept. 9.

May had supported staying within the EU bloc during the campaign, but now says the voters' desire to leave as expressed in the June 23 referendum must be respected.

"There is a big job before us: To unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone," May said.

The ramifications of leaving the EU's vast single market of 500 million consumers are roiling financial markets. The British pound was down sharply Tuesday, as were shares in U.K. real estate companies, amid concerns that the exit from the EU will hurt property prices in Britain.

Amid the upheaval, Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney projected a sense of calm Tuesday as he relaxed capital requirements for banks to free up money for loans for homes and businesses.

"The bank can be expected to take whatever action is needed to promote monetary and financial stability, and as a consequence, support the real economy," Carney said. "These efforts mean we can all look ahead, not over our shoulders."

The Bank of England has cited commercial real estate as one of the risks to the British economy. The sector had taken in capital from overseas and had become "stretched," the bank said.

Financial groups Aviva Investors, Standard Life and M&G Investments stopped trading Tuesday in commercial property funds following a rapid increase in investors trying to liquidate their holdings. They said they stopped trading to protect other investors who wished to remain in their respective funds.

The funds buy commercial property and offer shares to investors. Some of those investors now appear worried that companies might opt to leave London to move operations to mainland Europe to retain access to the lucrative EU market. That would leave empty office space and weigh down on commercial real estate values in Britain's capital.

"The dominos are starting to fall in the U.K. commercial property market, as yet another fund locks its doors on the back of outflows precipitated by the Brexit vote," Laith Khalaf, a senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said after the move by Aviva. "It's probably only a matter of time before we see other funds follow suit."

There were major drops in property companies' shares. Barratt Developments was down 6.2 percent, Taylor Wimpey 6.5 percent and Persimmon 5.4 percent.

Top EU officials, wondering with whom they will eventually negotiate, had sharp comments Tuesday about the U.K. leaders who pushed so hard to get Britain out of the EU -- and then stepped aside rather than take part in the delicate talks.

They include former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who declined a Conservative leadership bid after losing key support, and Nigel Farage, who resigned as leader of the U.K. Independence Party after helping lead Britain to a Brexit, as the exit plan is known.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told EU lawmakers that Johnson and Farage "are not patriots."

"Patriots don't resign when things get difficult," he said. "They stay."

Guy Verhofstadt, the Liberal bloc leader in the EU Parliament, likened the departed leaders to "rats fleeing a sinking ship."

The grim economic news in Britain was briefly offset by a rare glimpse of two Conservative Party grandees talking bluntly about their younger colleagues, apparently unaware they were being filmed by TV cameras.

Former Treasury chief Kenneth Clarke, speaking candidly to former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, described May -- leader in the first voting round -- as a "bloody difficult woman." He said she knows little about foreign affairs.

Rifkind, for his part, said he didn't care who gets into the final round as long as it isn't Gove, who threw the race into chaos last week by withdrawing support for Johnson and running himself.

Clarke joked that if Gove became prime minister he would probably get Britain involved in at least three wars at once.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.