By Charlotte Greenfield and Swati Pandey
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Finance Minister Bill English emerged on Thursday as the country's likely next leader after his closest competitor for the prime ministership dropped out of the race.
Police Minister Judith Collins said it had become clear that English had the support of half the 59-member caucus.
"As far as I'm concerned, he has won," Collins told reporters in Wellington. "I would like to say to my supporters that we should get in behind him and support Bill as the leader."
The snap race for the top job was prompted by Prime Minister John Key's sudden resignation on Monday. Key has been New Zealand's leader since 2008, heading up the National Party, over a period marked by political stability and economic reform.
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, the only other candidate, said he was not conceding, but the more junior lawmaker is considered unlikely to get enough support to pose a real challenge.
English further shored up support by naming senior cabinet minister Steven Joyce, the minister for economic development, as his finance ministry replacement if he wins the top job.
"If I become the leader that will be the case," English told reporters. "I have worked with Steven for the last eight years. He has got a fantastic set of skills."
Joyce had been considered a potential threat to English.
(Refiles to correct day to Thursday, paragraph 1)
(Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Paul Tait and Kim Coghill)