The race to be Britain's next prime minister has been whittled to two, with Conservative Party MPs assuring that the country will have a female head of government - the nation's first since Margaret Thatcher stepped down more than a quarter century ago.

The contest will pit Home Secretary Theresa May against Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom in a race that features contenders who were on opposite sides of last month's European Union referendum.

In a vote among 330 Tory Members of Parliament, May, 59, was on top with 199 votes compared to 84 for Leadsom. A third candidate, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, was knocked out after securing just 46 votes.

Gove had upended British politics last week by jumping into the race for prime minister at the last possible moment. The move forced the favourite, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, from the contest even before he had entered. But Gove's unexpected betrayal also angered many Conservative MPs, and prompted them to search for an alternative candidate to stand against the new front-runner, May.

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That turned out to be Leadsom, a relative unknown in British politics who became a junior minister last year but has never served in the cabinet - normally a prerequisite for holding the nation's top job. She begins the contest as a decided underdog against the better-known May, who dominated both rounds of balloting this week.

The winner is to be announced on September 9.

"Brexit means Brexit," May said when she kicked off her campaign.

May is a serious, no-nonsense politician: If she says Brexit means Brexit, it probably does.

She said she was the one to unite the country and lead it forward after Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation when his pro-European Union side lost the referendum on whether to remain in the European Union.

"My pitch is simple: I'm Theresa May, and I think I'm the best person to be prime minister," she said.

May had campaigned to remain in the EU, but not loudly, and she is known for her Eurosceptic views.

She ruled out a second referendum, as well as a general election before 2020. She also said that under her leadership, Britain would not apply to leave the EU before the end of the year.

She has sought to paint herself as a serious and experienced politician who can unite a divided Conservative Party and a divided country.

"I'm not a showy politician. I don't tour the television studios. I don't gossip over lunch. I don't drink in Parliament's bars. I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me," she has said.

May is Britain's long-serving Home Secretary, a portfolio under which she oversees immigration. She is praised by some in her party for taking a tough stance on immigration and for introducing visa restrictions on non-EU immigrants in an attempt to drive down net migration. For instance, as of April, Americans and other non-Europeans living in Britain for more than five years have to earn £35,000 if they want to stay.

I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.

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She is also reviled by some on the left. Her critics were outraged over a speech she gave last year to the Conservative Party in which she suggested that immigration makes Britain a less cohesive society. "When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society," she said. Her critics have accused her of using EU nationals as "bargaining chips" in the talks to come with the European Union. She has implied that it would be wrong to give guarantees without getting similar ones for Britons living in the EU.

She once famously said that many voters saw the Conservative Party as the "nasty party". When she launched her leadership bid, she praised Cameron for helping to detoxify the image of the party. She also said she wouldn't sign up for the current government's plan to turn the budget deficit into a surplus by 2020.

She said it was "vital" to continue along a similar path, but she added, "We should no longer seek to produce a budget surplus by the end of the Parliament".

Leadsom has "the zap, the drive and the determination" needed to be the next prime minister, says Johnson, who is backing her bid to become the next prime minister. Leadsom, 53, is an Energy Minister and a relative unknown in British politics. But she beat Gove - Britain's Justice Secretary, who was widely accused of stabbing Johnson in the back - to become one of two women on the final ballot.

Unlike May, Leadsom campaigned to leave the European Union, and she is running as the candidate who will fully deliver Brexit.

She has said she would move quickly to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism by which countries can leave the EU. She has also said that EU nationals should not be used as "bargaining chips" and should be allowed to stay in Britain post-Brexit.

Her supporters marched outside Westminster on Thursday chanting, "Leadsom for leader". But she is the underdog in the race, with May decisively winning the first two rounds of balloting.

Amber Rudd, Britain's Energy Secretary and Leadsom's boss, told the BBC that the country needs someone who has "real experience" at the top of government. She is backing May.

Theresa May makes a statement outside the Palace of Westminster after she won 199 votes for the Conservative leadership. Photo / AP
Theresa May makes a statement outside the Palace of Westminster after she won 199 votes for the Conservative leadership. Photo / AP

The favourite: Theresa May

Age

59

Number of MP backers 199

Background and education Born in Eastbourne in 1956 to Anglican vicar father Hubert Brasier and his wife Zaidee. Only child. Educated at Holton Park Girls' Grammar and St Hugh's College, Oxford (Geography).

Family Married husband Philip in 1980, who she met while they were studying at Oxford. They have no children.

Experience outside politics Worked at the Bank of England as a financial consultant at the Association for Payment Clearing Services until 1997.

Political experience Councillor in London for almost 10 years before fighting two unsuccessful parliamentary elections. Became shadow education secretary two years after election as MP and served in the post until 2001, when she became shadow transport secretary. May was Conservative party chairman between 2002 and 2003. In 2004 she became shadow secretary for culture, media and sport, until 2005 when she was made shadow leader of the Commons. In 2009 she was made shadow work and pensions secretary until 2010, when the Coalition was elected and she was appointed Home Secretary.

Strengths and weaknesses Has won respect of almost all of her parliamentary colleagues because she has held one of the toughest briefs in politics for the longest time without any major mishaps. Mrs May failed to make an impact during the EU referendum debate - her own choice. Some MPs fear she would only take the UK partially out of the EU, and any backbench Brexit rebellion could make her premiership tricky indeed.

Andrea Leadsom launches her campaign to be the party's new leader. Photo / AP
Andrea Leadsom launches her campaign to be the party's new leader. Photo / AP

The underdog: Andrea Leadsom

Age

53

Number of MP backers 84

Background and education Born in Aylesbury in 1963 and raised by her divorced mother in Tring, Herts with two sisters. She attended Tonbridge Girls Grammar, Kent, then Warwick University. She holds a degree in political science.

Family Married husband Ben, a businessman, in 1993. They have three children.

Experience outside politics Worked in the financial sector, becoming a successful banker at Barclays by 30. Worked in fund management at De Putron, a company owned by her brother-in-law until 1999, when she joined Invesco Perpetual where she worked for 10 years as senior investment officer, then head of corporate governance.

Political experience Councillor before becoming an MP and unsuccessful candidate. On Commons Treasury committee between 2010-14 and then served as economic secretary to the Treasury from April 2010 to May 2015. Appointed minister for energy in May 2015.

Strengths and Weaknesses Her strength lies in her decision to back Brexit and the fact that she is a relatively new candidate, allowing her to make the case for being the fresh face of the Conservative Party. But this could also go against her because Leadsom's major weakness is said to be her inexperience.

- Washington Post, Telegraph Group Ltd