LONDON (Reuters) - The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper seen as influential among Conservative supporters, endorsed interior minister Theresa May on Saturday to be the country's next prime minister.
May is the front-runner to succeed David Cameron as Conservative leader and prime minister in a contest against junior energy minister Andrea Leadsom that will be decided by the party's 150,000 grassroots members.
Cameron, who had campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union, announced he would resign the morning after a June 23 referendum that delivered a vote for Brexit.
"The question now is how we go in a way that works to the greatest advantage of the country. The best route forward needs to be found; so who is best placed to chart that course?" the Telegraph said in its editorial column on Saturday.
"In our view, the answer is undoubtedly Mrs May, Britain's longest serving Home Secretary," it said, citing May's experience as the crucial factor.
The Telegraph has a daily circulation of 498,000, the highest among the nation's so-called broadsheets, or highbrow newspapers, excluding Sunday editions. It is known for its staunch support of the Conservative Party.
Endorsement from the Telegraph will be welcome to the 59-year-old May, whose main difficulty in the contest is that she campaigned for a "remain" vote in the EU referendum in June, albeit in a low-key fashion.
Some Conservative lawmakers and supporters have argued that the prime minister who negotiates the terms of Britain's exit from the EU should be someone who was in favour of Brexit in the first place, such as Leadsom.
The Telegraph said the debate was no longer about staying or leaving, and it would be dangerous for the Conservatives to continue to define themselves by their position on the EU issue.
"This is a vote for a prime minister and, as such, a proven record of experience is critical," it said.
May has already obtained the backing of Britain's two biggest-selling newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Mail, and of the Telegraph's main broadsheet competitor, the Times.
She obtained support from 199 Conservative lawmakers in the second ballot of the leadership contest, while Leadsom was backed by 84. The contest now moves to the party grassroots, who will elect the winner by Sept. 9.
May, like Cameron a graduate of Oxford University, has won praise for her handling of the law-and-order portfolio over the last six years, though she has also faced criticism for her department's failure to bring net migration below 100,000 a year, with current levels more than three times that.
On Saturday Leadsom, 53, defended herself against fierce criticism of comments she made suggesting that being a mother meant she had a greater stake in the country's future than May, who has no children.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Gareth Jones