By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) - Boris Johnson got a boost in his campaign to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday when one of his former rivals and EU supporter Matt Hancock backed him saying he was almost certain to win the contest.
Johnson, a former London mayor and foreign minister, is way out in front in the race to become leader of the Conservative Party and despite so far deciding to steer clear of debates with his rivals, his popularity has yet to be dented.
Most of the other five hopefuls concede that Johnson, whose career has been marked by gaffes and scandals, will almost definitely make the final two in the race, when mainly pro-Brexit Conservative Party members will cast the deciding votes.
But the race is on to decide who will challenge him.
Health Secretary Hancock, who dropped out of the race on Friday after winning 20 votes in the first ballot of Conservative lawmakers, said Johnson was the best candidate to lead the party.
"Boris has run a disciplined campaign and is almost certainly going to be our next prime minister," Hancock said in an article in The Times newspaper, which tapped him as a strong contender to become finance minister.
"My view is that we need to start coming together sooner rather than later."
Johnson, the face of the official campaign to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, has promised to lead the United Kingdom out of the EU with or without a deal. But parliament has indicated it will try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which investors warn could roil markets and shock the world economy, while the EU has said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement that May agreed.
According to economists polled by Reuters, the likelihood of a no-deal exit has jumped in the past month.
Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, the country, the parliament and both main parties are still deeply divided over Brexit. But all of the Conservative leadership contestants agree they must take Britain out of the bloc.
Johnson won the support of 114 of 313 Conservative Party lawmakers in the first round of the leadership contest. The second round is on Tuesday with the result due around 1700 GMT.
Any candidate with 32 votes or fewer is eliminated. If all candidates have more than 32 votes, the one with the fewest is eliminated.
For the other five, the fight was on to prove they had what it takes to challenge Johnson, or at least test some of his arguments.
"This is a two-horse race, and we know one of these horses - it's Boris ... There is literally only one question you have to answer, who is likely to beat Boris?" international development minister Rory Stewart said in an appeal to other lawmakers who he needs the support of.
"He (Boris) doesn't, as far as I can see, he doesn't have a plan. I say as far as I can see because he doesn't talk to me, he doesn't talk to you, he doesn't talk to the public," said Stewart, who is now placed second favourite.
Environment minister Michael Gove also took a dig at Johnson, saying his absence from Monday's hustings in Westminster was described to him as being like "Hamlet without a prince".
"And of course we all remember that at the end of Hamlet, he isn't the king," Gove added.
If Johnson does win the top job and does go for a no-deal Brexit, a constitutional crisis could be on the horizon if parliament tries to block such a departure.
Pro-Brexit candidate Dominic Raab has said parliament could be suspended if necessary, a possibility he refused to rule out on Sunday in a debate with other contenders.
But the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, said it was fantasy to think that the lower house of parliament could be pushed aside.
"It's a joke!" Bercow told French newspaper Le Figaro in comments reported in French. "The idea that the British parliament can be pushed aside when such a crucial decision is to be made is fantasy."
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by William James and Richard Lough in Paris; editing by William Schomberg and Janet Lawrence)