Liz Truss, foreign secretary, on Tuesday narrowed the gap with trade minister Penny Mordaunt as they battled to join former chancellor Rishi Sunak in the final stage of the race to be the next Conservative party leader.
In the latest round of voting by 358 Tory MPs on Monday, Sunak retained his position as the frontrunner with the support of 115 MPs, an increase of 14 from the last voting round. He was just five short of the 120 needed to guarantee him a place in the final run-off.
Sunak’s allies are certain he is on course to be one of the two shortlisted candidates that go to Tory members, who will decide the next UK prime minister. A final result will be announced on September 5.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, was knocked out of the contest after receiving the support of 31 Conservative MPs, the lowest number.
Mordaunt, the surprise insurgent of the contest, remained in second place with the endorsement of 82 MPs, which represented a decrease of one on the last round.
But many Tory MPs believe that Mordaunt is losing momentum in the contest after lacklustre performances in two televised debates in the past four days. She is expected to struggle to gain Tugendhat’s supporters.
Her position as Sunak’s most likely opponent is under threat from Truss, who is perceived to have raised her game in Sunday’s debate. She received the backing of 71 MPs, an increase of seven on the second round, although that was not as big an advance as her supporters had hoped for.
Truss’s campaign praised Tugendhat, saying “he can be very proud”, adding “now is the time to get behind the best candidate to deliver the economic change we need”.
Kemi Badenoch, ex-equalities minister, came fourth with the support of 58 MPs, an increase of nine on the last round. She believes she can still overtake Truss and Mordaunt to secure second place.
A junior minister who has never served in cabinet, Badenoch has caught the imagination of many grassroots Tory members. A poll by the ConservativeHome website said she would beat all of the remaining candidates in the final run-off.
Two further shortlisting rounds are expected to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday. The final two contenders will then be voted on by approximately 150,000 Tory party members.
The remaining contenders in the race are likely to be eager to gain Tugendhat’s endorsement, which may encourage his supporters to follow suit.
He is ideologically most closely aligned to Sunak but one ally of Tugendhat said he was not immediately seeking to back another contender. “Tom isn’t simply going to roll behind someone else. He’ll back the right candidate most closely associated with his campaign pledges.”
In a statement after the vote, Tugendhat said he had been overwhelmed by the response his campaign had received across the country. “People are ready for a clean start and our party must deliver on it and put trust back into politics,” he said.
A televised debate of the leadership candidates that had been due to take place on Tuesday was cancelled following concerns among Tory MPs that the confrontations were damaging the party’s standing with so-called “blue on blue attacks”.
A spokesman for Sunak said: “Every poll shows only Rishi can beat Starmer and is the candidate the public think would make the best PM.
“MPs are also recognising that Rishi has the best experience and plans to deal with the current economic situation. Rishi will rebuild our economy by gripping inflation and getting our economy growing quickly again.”