Boris Johnson topped the Tory leadership second round tonight – but still faces a challenge from Rory Stewart after his support surged.
The former foreign secretary romped home with backing from 126 MPs – way ahead of his competitors – and now looks to have one foot in Downing Street as he prepares for a BBC TV debate at 8pm.
But International Development Secretary Mr Stewart, who had admitted his campaign was on a knife edge, also scored a dramatic victory by reaching the minimum 33 votes needed, hitting 37 backers. A spokeswoman said the result, nearly double his tally of 19 from last week, showed he could go ‘all the way’.
Dominic Raab was humiliatingly evicted with just 30 votes, while Sajid Javid sneaked home with 33.
Jeremy Hunt came second again with 46, but failed to make much headway since last Tuesday, adding just three votes. Michael Gove also stayed in the race with 41, but again did not make significant progress from the previous 38.
Mr Stewart’s prize for getting through is to face off against Mr Johnson and other contenders in a BBC TV debate at 8pm. A strong performance there could help him overhaul Mr Hunt and finish in the top two as this phase of the contest wraps up on Thursday.
Mr Stewart spent the afternoon desperately ringing round supporters of his rivals as he scrambled to avoid being ejected from the battle this evening.
Earlier, Mr Stewart joked that he must be ‘doing something right’ amid claims Mr Johnson was deploying dirty tricks to avoid facing him in the run-off.
The former foreign secretary has been accused of plotting to ‘lend’ some of his massive support to rival Jeremy Hunt. Allies believe Mr Hunt will be easier to beat in the final vote of Tory members than the International Development Secretary or Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
As he arrived to vote in a Commons committee room this evening, Mr Stewart jibed that he had been trying to woo Mr Johnson’s campaign chief Gavin Williamson.
‘Apparently he is lending votes so I’m very keen on him to lend me 15 votes to get through,’ he told reporters.
He admitted he was ‘not confident’ that he had the 33 votes needed to avoid automatic eviction from the contest.
Mr Stewart said: ‘I have got to simultaneously write my resignation speech and prepare for the debate at the same time.’
Theresa May had a sharp response when asked who she voted for. ‘As I said last week none of your business,’ she said.
Mr Johnson came to Parliament to vote tonight with close ally Conor Burns (pictured left)
Boris Johnson (pictured arriving at Parliament today) has been accused of plotting to ‘lend’ some of his massive support to rival Jeremy Hunt
Allies of Boris Johnson believe Jeremy Hunt would be easier to beat in the final head-to-head vote than Rory Stewart (pictured arriving at today’s Cabinet meeting in Downing Street)
Jeremy Hunt seemed in good spirits as he was driven into Parliament this evening
This is the set of the BBC debate where the surviving Tory leadership candidates will face off at 8pm tonight
As tensions rose today, Mr Gove and Home Secretary Mr Javid targeted Mr Stewart as the other half of a pincer movement looking to encircle the surprise second favorite.
Mr Gove pleaded lead with Tory MPs not to vote for Mr Stewart to get into the final two, saying ‘it would be a mistake to put forward two candidates to the final round who will polarise our party,’ in an article for the Times.
However, he also held out an olive branch to Mr Stewart by saying he wanted him ‘at the heart of my team’ in future. If the minister is kicked out of the race his endorsement will be fought over.
Mr Javid used a radio interview to warn that the leadership run-off does not ‘look like a debate at the Oxford Union’ – a jab at Mr Johnson and Mr Stewart’s privileged backgrounds.
He also suggested that Mr Stewart was ‘effectively telling us we should remain in the EU’ – causing the International Development Secretary to retort that he was in favour of a ‘moderate and pragmatic Brexit’.
Supporters of Mr Stewart were also ramping up their rhetoric, with Justice Secretary David Gauke urging people to think how they would ‘feel’ if he was knocked out tonight.
‘A question for my colleagues who: – want the leadership candidates properly tested – believe we should leave the EU with a deal – want a great communicator capable of pulling off a surprise with the membership …
‘How would you feel if @RoryStewart got 32 votes tonight?’
This morning Cumbria MP Mr Stewart ‘liked’ a tweet branding the move by Team Boris as ‘juvenile and pathetic’ and ‘no way to choose a prime minister’.
And he added: ‘I seem to be doing something right.’
One senior Tory source told MailOnline the fact it is a secret ballot meant Mr Johnson himself could vote for Mr Hunt and no-one would know.
‘Tactical voting was seriously considered on the May campaign in 2016, because she would have been better off facing Michael Gove in the run-off. But it never came to that because Leadsom dropped out,’ they said.
‘They could well do it. But it has to be kept to the core group or you have to tell too many people. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boris himself ended up voting for Hunt.’
However, an MP backing Mr Hunt said Mr Johnson’s camp were ‘making excuses’ in case their vote did not go up significantly. ‘It’s a load of cobblers,’ they said.
A source on Mr Javid’s team said they were not ‘detecting any signs’ that the numbers were slipping.
‘It feels like we’ve taken off but we are not sure if we’ve got enough fuel for the flight. Fortunately it is only a short haul… we will see at 6pm,’ he said.
Theresa May (pictured arriving at Parliament for the vote tonight) refused to say who she was backing when asked by reporters
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson backer Matt Hancock share a joke in Downing Street this morning
Sajid Javid, who has attacked his rivals’ privileged backgrounds, gave a thumbs up as he arrived for the Cabinet meeting today
Mr Johnson’s father Stanley has also waded in, warning on Sky News against having Eton-educated Mr Stewart taking on his son in the head-to-head
Jeremy Hunt, pictured today, is reported to be receiving votes from Boris backers in a bid to get him through to the final two in the Tory leadership race – because he is seen as easier to beat
A poll of activists by the ConservativeHome website today found Mr Johnson was still way ahead – but Mr Stewart has been gaining ground
The wrangling came as Brexiteer former Tory leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom became the latest high-profile figure to back Mr Johnson today.
Without naming the International Development Secretary, Mr Gove told the Times: ‘It is vital that the Conservative Party puts forward the right person who can stop (Jeremy) Corbyn.
‘The new leader must have a plan to deliver Brexit; and crucially, the debating ability to win the arguments in parliament and beyond.
At this stage of the leadership contest, it is also vital for Conservative MPs, who are narrowing the field of contenders to two people, to give the party’s membership a true choice.
‘As well as having the ability to take on Corbyn, the final two should be candidates who believe in Brexit, who can deliver it and who can unite the party.’
But Mr Stewart appears to be holding onto his support among Tory members. A new poll from Conservative Home today showed he has pulled away in second place in the last week.
But he remains miles behind Mr Johnson, who looks almost certain to win the member vote.
Mr Javid said he is ‘less Homer’s Iliad and more Homer Simpson’ today as he lashed out at his privileged rivals in the race to become the next prime minister.
Mr Stewart was pictured chatting to Mr Gove outside Parliament yesterday afternoon
The Home Secretary warned that the Tory leadership race risked looking like a debate at the Oxford Union if the final candidates are all from similar backgrounds – unlike Mr Javid who was educated at a comprehensive school.
‘I may have been culture secretary but I don’t have the oratory of Cicero, it’s less Homer’s Iliad and more Homer Simpson,’ he told the BBC.
‘But I try my best to connect and I think it’s very important as a modern Conservative Party that we reach out to those modern audiences.
‘If we end up in a situation where the final two, three, four even are people from similar backgrounds with similar life experiences and it will look like a debate at the Oxford Union and I just don’t think that’s healthy for the Tory Party.
Mr Stewart, meanwhile, said he has ‘no problem’ being the ‘stop Boris’ candidate and would ‘love’ to go against Mr Johnson in the final two.
‘I have no problem with that and I would love to go against him in the final two in order to give members the chance to choose whether they want Boris’s Brexit or mine,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The International Development Secretary also faced questions about his back story, amid reports that he allegedly worked as a spy.
Asked if former spies could, under the law, answer honestly whether they worked for MI6, he said: ‘No, and in fact the law wouldn’t allow newspapers to reveal the identity of intelligence officers…
‘I definitely would say I served my country and if somebody asked me whether I am a spy I would say no.’
Tory MPs will vote in the second bout of the contest to select Britain’s next prime minister between 3pm and 5pm.
The result is due to be announced at 6pm.
Candidates need to gain at least 33 votes from MPs to remain in the race to reach the final run-off, which will see some 160,000 Tory members select the next prime minister.
If all candidates pass the 33-vote threshold, the one with the lowest total will be eliminated.
There is then due to be a live TV debate at 8pm on the BBC that will feature the front-runner and former foreign secretary, Mr Johnson.
By the end of the week, four of the six current riders will be forced out, leaving the final two to go head-to-head for votes from the Tory grassroots.
‘I won’t do a deal with Boris’, says Farage as poll shows almost HALF of Tory members would be ‘happy’ if the Brexit Party founder joined their party and became LEADER
Nigel Farage has ruled out an electoral pact with Boris Johnson or any other Tory leader as he hit out at attempts to ‘buy me off’.
The Brexit Party leader said he had been approached by Conservative officials about working together to avoid splitting the Brexiteer vote.
It came as a new poll showed that almost half of Conservative members would be happy for Mr Farage to lead their own party.
Some 46 per cent of members surveyed by YouGov for the Times said that they would be happy if the former Ukip leader joined the party and landed the top job.
The shock numbers show just how divisive Brexit has become in politics, with the Tories languishing in fourth place in the polls.
The Brexit Party is currently in first place ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with Labour third.
Speaking to the Daily Express, Mr Farage said: ‘I’ve been approached by a couple of people. But why would I trust anybody in the Conservative Party?
‘If they really want to leave on October 31, they need to get on with it. All I can see at the moment is a rerun of March 29.
‘I can understand why they want to buy me off but the lack of trust means it’s not up for grabs.’
Mr Johnson has already played down the chances of an electoral pact with Nigel Farage’s party, which is ahead in the polls
Mr Farage said: ‘I can understand why they want to buy me off but the lack of trust means it’s not up for grabs’
The YouGov poll also revealed that 40 per cent of Tory voters would be ‘unhappy’ if Farage joined and became leader.
Allies of Mr Johnson had already ruled out a pact, saying yesterday he did not ‘need’ to do a deal with Mr Farage, despite the rising threat from his new party.
The arrangement could mean the Brexit Party does not field candidates against Tories they see as committed to making a clean break from the EU.
Brexit minister James Cleverly said if Mr Johnson became PM he would not need to do a deal with Mr Farage.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I can’t see that is something he would want to do and it is not anything he would need to do.
‘He is able to win elections with Conservatives and Conservative support. He didn’t broach electoral pacts in London and I can’t imagine he would need to broach electoral pacts at this point.