Tom Tugendhat has been eliminated from the Conservative leadership contest as the race to succeed Boris Johnson is whittled down to just four candidates.
Rishi Sunak remains out in front after winning 115 Tory MPs’ votes in the third round of the ballot, while Penny Mordaunt is still in second place with backing from 82 colleagues – despite losing a vote from the last round.
Liz Truss closed the gap on Ms Mordaunt by winning 71 votes, seven more than previously, after she was endorsed by Suella Braverman, the right-wing candidate who was pushed out of the contest on Friday.
However, Ms Truss’ rival on the right Kemi Badenoch fared even better. The “anti-woke” candidate picked up another nine votes since the last round, taking her total to 58 MPs.
George Freeman MP – one of Ms Mordaunt’s supporters – said her camp was pleased that she remained clear of the foreign secretary in the hunt to win one of the final two spots.
“After three days of pounding in the media I’m delighted she’s held second place,” the former science minister told Sky News. “Nobody has been attacked more savagely in the press.”
Mr Freeman also claimed many of Tugendhat’s 31 backers in this round were ‘One Nation’ moderates much more likely to transfer their support to Ms Mordaunt than to Ms Truss. “A lot of them will come to Penny.”
Steve Baker sets the stakes for the final round ballot on Wednesday night, suggesting Ms Badenoch would be eliminated on Tuesday night – forcing her backers to decide who joins Mr Sunak in the final two.
“It seems that in the last round, Kemi Badenoch’s supporters will decide whether Liz Truss or Penny Mordaunt becomes PM,” the Brexiteer MP tweeted.
Earlier on Monday, Mr Johnson said his party would soon “coalesce in loyalty” around a new leader. It came as Tuesday evening’s Sky News debate was cancelled over concerns about increasingly nasty “blue on blue” attacks.
Mr Sunak and Ms Truss declined to take part after the previous two TV hustings descended into damaging public slanging matches.
Mr Tugendhat – who thanked his supporters and said he was “immensely proud” of his campaign – said earlier that he “deplored the infighting, the sniping, the blue on blue, the attacks and the smears”.
Ms Mordaunt’s backers suggested they would be trying to convince Mr Tugendhat to throw his weight behind her campaign in the hours ahead.
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan – a key ally of Mr Tugendhat – said the eliminated candidate would announce on Tuesday morning who he would endorse for the leadership.
However, Ms Trevelyan attacked Ms Mordaunt’s recent record at the trade department earlier on Monday.
She told LBC: “There have been a number of times when she hasn’t been available, which would have been useful, and other ministers have picked up the pieces.”
One MP supporting Ms Truss said the foreign secretary was “heading in the right direction”.
Asked about the increase in support for rival Ms Badenoch, they said: “Liz is absolutely heading in the direction… she’s ahead and she’s heading in the right direction, so that’s good.”
A source for Mr Sunak’s campaign said the former chancellor had achieved a “good result” after putting up 14 more votes in the latest ballot.