Liz Truss’s hopes of replacing Boris Johnson as prime minister have taken a big step forward as rival Penny Mordaunt’s leadership bid stalled and a poll suggested the foreign secretary would comfortably beat MPs’ favourite Rishi Sunak in the final ballot of Tory members.
Both the Truss and Mordaunt camps were love-bombing defeated contender Kemi Badenoch, whose elimination in the fourth round of voting put her in the position of kingmaker.
And all three remaining contenders were battling for the votes of Ms Badenoch’s 59 supporters, who now have the power to decide who joins Mr Sunak in the final battle for the Tory leadership, which will be decided by party members on 5 September.
The 42-year-old former equalities minister herself looks set for a significant role in government whoever becomes PM, with rival camps hailing her “fantastic campaign” and “fresh thinking”.
Mr Sunak’s tally of 118 votes left him tantalisingly close to the 120 threshold to guarantee a place on the final shortlist of two to be announced at 4pm on Wednesday.
But his prospects in the members’ ballot looked far gloomier, with a YouGov poll of 725 Tory activists finding he would be comprehensively beaten by either Truss or Mordaunt.
However, in a sign that Ms Mordaunt’s campaign may be losing momentum, her margin of victory over the former chancellor was significantly reduced to 14 points, compared to 39 a week ago, while Ms Truss’s lead over Sunak extended from 14 to 19 points over the same period.
Despite holding onto her second place with 92 MPs’ votes in Tuesday’s ballot, the trade minister did not enjoy the expected boost – on which she had been relying to maintain momentum in her campaign – from the 31 backers of One Nation candidate Tom Tugendhat, who was knocked out on Monday.
With Tugendhat campaign manager Anne Marie Trevelyan turning publicly on her Department for International Trade colleague – who she accused of skipping work to concentrate on her leadership ambitions – and endorsing Truss, Ms Mordaunt picked up just 10 votes, compared to the 15 gained by the foreign secretary to reach a tally of 86.
Having won the “fight on the right”, Ms Truss was hopeful of scooping enough of Badenoch’s supporters to overhaul Ms Mordaunt on Wednesday and secure her place in the final face-off with Sunak.
In an appeal to the 58 MPs now in play, a spokesperson for Ms Truss said: :“Kemi Badenoch has run a fantastic campaign and contributed enormously to the battle of ideas throughout this contest. Now is the time for the party to unite behind a candidate who will govern in a Conservative way and who has shown she can deliver time and again.“
But Mordaunt backers insisted that tomorrow’s vote will not be decided simply by ideology.
One told The Independent that conversations in the Commons tea-room suggested Badenoch’s backers were split evenly between ideological right-wingers who might now coalesce behind Ms Truss and others who backed the Saffron Walden MP because they wanted a fresh face at the top, who could now transfer their allegiances to Mordaunt.
Meanwhile, others questioned Ms Badenoch’s ability to deliver her supporters in a block, suggesting that party grandee Michael Gove, who has been a driving force behind her campaign, could in fact act as the kingmaker as the battle draws to a tightly-fought conclusion.
One senior Tory told The Independent: “Lots of us are eager to find out which mast Michael will pin his colours to. He’s a formidable campaigner, so his backing is a boost for any team.”
A senior Sunak supporter dismissed rumours that the former chancellor was planning to “lend” supporters to Mordaunt to keep Ms Truss out of the final ballot, as the candidate he most fears.
“We are encouraging every colleague who supports Rishi to vote for him,” said the MP, who also emphatically denied that the frontrunner had a preferred rival for the final contest.
One MP told The Independent: “Everyone is talking about Rishi lending votes, but I’m not sure he has enough in the bag to do that without risking his own position. And it’s not at all clear whether his chances are better against Penny or against Liz.”
Uncertainty remained high over the result of Wednesday’s vote, with Badenoch supporters largely keeping their cards close to their chests over how they will switch.
Several said that they had received multiple calls and approaches from the rival camps, but few revealed their new allegiances.
Veteran former whip Sir Desmond Swayne announced he was falling in behind Mr Sunak, and defence minister Leo Docherty said he was backing Ms Truss for her “deep experience and sound judgement”. Senior backbencher Tim Loughton said Ms Badenoch was the “stand-out candidate” and members’ choice, but that party activists would now feel “cheated” if Ms Mordaunt was not on the shortlist presented to them.
Mordaunt supporter George Freeman told The Independent he had been urging MPs to consider not only who they want as leader but how they want the party to be represented by the two candidates in the final showdown.
“A lot of MPs are rightly worried that a Rishi v Liz contest could end up like the TV debates as an unedifying fight between two people who only 10 days ago were in Cabinet together, not the moment of inspiring change and renewal that Tom, Kemi and Penny and members have all called for,” said Mr Freeman.
The three remaining candidates had a last chance to lobby for the votes of “Red Wall” MPs at a hustings hosted by the Northern Research Group and Onward thinktank in Westminster on Tuesday evening.
All three said they were signed up to the NRG manifesto demanding, among other things, a minister for the North in the new government. And Ms Mordaunt went further than her rivals in committing to delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail.
NRG chair Jake Berry said the event demonstrated that the “levelling up” agenda would not die with the end of Mr Johnson’s premiership.
“The core principle of levelling up is absolutely embedded across Conservative Party politics for at least the next decade,” said Mr Berry. “They might change the slogan, but frankly they can call it Shirley if they like, as long as it delivers for my constituents.”
Ballot packs for up to 200,000 Tory members who joined the party before 3 June will begin landing on doorsteps on 1 August and hustings will be held in all parts of the country before the deadline for voting on 2 September, with the winner announced three days later.
However, online voting will begin immediately, giving the final two candidates only a matter of days to win over the thousands who are expected to mark their cross as soon as they receive their ballot paper.