Matt Hancock pulled out of the Tory leadership race today amid squabbling over who should take on runaway favourite Boris Johnson.
The Health Secretary pulled out admitting the party was not going to elect him as leader – amid speculation he could line up behind Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid.
‘I ran as the candidate of the future, but the Party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now,’ he said.
Mr Johnson trounced the field in the first round of the contest yesterday, romping home with 114 votes from MPs.
The massive haul – more than the next three candidates put together – means he is virtually guaranteed a spot in the final two, who will go to a ballot of party members.
But the other hopefuls are still fighting over votes to sort out who should be Mr Johnson’s opponent in the run-off – and position themselves to get a big job in the next Cabinet.
They have been desperately wooing the three candidates who were eliminated in the first ballot, with rumours that plum posts are being promised.
Mr Hancock refused to say who he would endorse for PM, saying he wanted to push the values of ‘free enterprise, and an open, aspirational, free society’.
‘I will talk to all the other candidates about how these values can be best taken forward,’ he added.
Some supporters of Home Secretary Mr Javid, who came fifth, are urging him to do a deal with Mr Johnson to become Chancellor.
However, one senior MP in Mr Javid’s camp dismissed the idea – telling MailOnline that Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt taking on Mr Johnson would be a ‘quasi University Challenge final’.
Mr Hunt was educated at Charterhouse and Magdalen colllege, Oxford, while Mr Johnson went to Eton and Balliol, Oxford.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced in a video today (pictured) that he was dropping out of the Tory leadership race
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson (pictured leaving his London home today) trounced the field in the first round of the contest yesterday, romping home with 114 votes from MPs
Meanwhile, the trailing candidates have been ramping up pressure on Mr Johnson to take part in TV debates.
The front runner has so far taken just six questions from journalists in his highly stage-managed campaign, and has been refusing media requests for interviews.
Mr Hunt taunted Boris Johnson for ‘hiding away’ today as he demanded the Tory leadership front runner face him in TV debates.
The Foreign Secretary jibed that his rival had to be a ‘little bit braver’ amid anger at Mr Johnson’s ‘submarine’ strategy of avoiding scrutiny during the campaign.
Tory Game of Thrones: Bribes and threats as MPs jostle for position in post-May era
Tory big beasts are engaged in Game of Thrones-style manoeuvring as they position themselves for the post-May era.
With Boris Johnson in the driving seat for the leadership, bribes and threats are flying at Westminster.
Candidates have been desperately wooing supporters of the three colleagues who were eliminated in the first ballot yesterday.
There are rumours that Andrea Leadsom – who secured 11 votes – could line up behind Sajid Javid in the first instance.
Meanwhile, Esther McVey could try to deliver her nine backers to Dominic Raab, whose hardline Brexit views are probably closest to her own.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has concluded he cannot win, and might now throw his lot in with Jeremy Hunt as the best prospect of taking on Mr Johnson.
There are claims that Mr Javid is being urged to do a deal with the front runner that could install him as Chancellor in a new Cabinet – although other backers insist he must stay in.
However, Mr Johnson’s advantage in the race is such that many individual MPs might decide their best interests lie in joining the winning team – whether their previous candidate wants them to or not.
Mr Hunt taunted Mr Johnson that his hero Winston Churchill would not have shirked taking part in ‘big occasions’.
The direct assault on Mr Johnson comes after he destroyed the field in the first round of the Tory leadership contest yesterday – raking in backing from 114 MPs.
The huge total – nearly three times the 43 Mr Hunt managed – means he is virtually guaranteed a spot in the final two, who will go to a ballot of party members.
But Mr Hunt went on the attack today in a bid to cement his status as the main challenger, pointing out that all six other candidates had signed up to TV debates on Sunday and Tuesday. He said Tory members and the country deserved to know who was going to be the next PM.
‘We can only have that debate if our frontrunner in this campaign is a little bit braver in terms of getting out into the media, engaging in debates, engaging in the TV debate,’ Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘If you want to be prime minister of the United Kingdom, you have to get out there and make your case.
‘What would Churchill say if somebody who wants to be prime minister of the United Kingdom was hiding away from the media, not taking part in these big occasions.’
Campaign sources said the combative comments showed the ‘underdog is getting hungry’.
Mr Johnson’s opponents have ganged up by committing to appear on TV leadership debates on Channel 4 on Sunday and the BBC on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson’s aides say he is ‘in discussions’ with broadcasters.
In a joint statement, Mr Hunt, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Mr Javid, Mr Hancock and Rory Stewart said the leadership contest was ‘a critical moment’ for both the UK and the Conservative party.
They said: ‘The next Conservative Leader, and Prime Minister, will have the crucial task of uniting Britain behind a new vision – not only to deliver Brexit, but to define what comes next.
‘This leadership contest provides an important opportunity to debate, to shape and to define the ideas which will underpin those competing visions.
‘That is why we are committed to taking part in the Channel 4 televised debates this Sunday and the BBC programme next Tuesday.’
Those campaigning against Mr Johnson warned his strategy of avoiding media scrutiny could land the Tories with the same sort of leadership coronation that delivered victory for Theresa May without her being stress-tested under the spotlight.
Jeremy Hunt (left at Parliament yesterday) came a distant second in the Tory ballot yesterday. Sajid Javid (right) came fifth and is considering whether to drop out
A spokesman for Mr Stewart’s campaign added the next leader must demonstrate they have the capability to ‘win back old voters and win over new audiences’.
He added: ‘Any candidate who seeks that mantle can hardly opt out of a public debate.
How will the Tory leader battle play out?
TUESDAY, JUNE 18
The next round of voting will take place.
Contenders will be hoping to consolidate their support and hoover up votes from those who were eliminated today.
There is also the potential for pacts with candidates who no longer believe they can win.
THURSDAY, JUNE 20
Further rounds of voting will take place during June until there are just two candidates left by this point.
They will then go to a run-off ballot of the 160,000 Tory members.
WEEK OF JULY 22
The winner is due to be declared this week.
They will take over from Mrs May as PM shortly afterwards – probably in time to take a session of PMQs before the Commons breaks up for its summer recess.
‘If any candidate ducks that duty, there is a simple question we should ask: ‘What have you got to hide?”
Meanwhile, Mr Raab – who is seeking hard Brexit votes like Mr Johnson – also called for a ‘proper debate’.
He said: ‘I’m looking forward to the first televised debates on Sunday and I hope that everyone gets involved – we should have a proper debate on the vision for the country.’
Meanwhile, Mr Hancock is understood to be considering pulling out of the race to support another candidate with a better chance of winning the 33 votes needed to get past the next round.
The Times reported the Health Secretary met Mr Javid, the Home Secretary, but the meeting appears not to have resulted in any agreement and Mr Hancock is now thought to be more likely to back Mr Gove or Mr Hunt.
Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, told Mr Johnson it was his duty to debate with his rivals and ‘get out and do the TV debates’, according to the Times.
There are calls for the four candidates at the bottom of the results table to drop out and speed up the process of selecting the next leader.
One of Mr Johnson’s supporters labelled the four ‘vanity candidates’, the Telegraph reported, saying only Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt and Mr Gove should stay in the race.
They added: ‘Anyone else who tries to carry on is being indulgent.’
If there were only three candidates left by next Tuesday’s vote, one would be eliminated and the contest could proceed to the next stage of voting by the party membership the same day, instead of next Thursday as currently scheduled.
What happens next? ‘Stop Boris’ Tory leadership hopefuls now locked in a battle for second place to make it onto the final ballot paper
The field of Tory leadership challengers has been whittled down to seven contenders after three failed to make it past the first hurdle.
Those still standing now have four days in which to persuade more of their Conservative colleagues to back their bids before the second round of voting takes place.
At this point the race is entirely about momentum. Boris Johnson has cemented his status as the prohibitive favourite after he secured 114 votes – enough to effectively guarantee he is one of the final two candidates.
But for the remaining six candidates, it is all still to play for.
And then there were seven: Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart all cleared the first hurdle in the Tory leadership contest
What happens next Tuesday?
Tory MPs will vote for the second time in the Tory leadership contest in what is likely to be a make or break moment in the race to succeed Theresa May.
There will be seven candidates to choose from but only Mr Johnson will have any certainty about making it to the next stage.
What’s the plan now for the other six candidates?
Anyone not named Mr Johnson will now have the same goal: To finish in second place and make it onto the final ballot paper alongside Mr Johnson.
Jeremy Hunt came second in today’s vote with the support of 43 of his colleagues.
The Foreign Secretary came second in the first round of voting and will now be hoping to persuade Tory MPs that he is the candidate capable of challenging Boris Johnson
But none of the other remaining candidates are too far behind and all of them will be hopeful of hoovering up at least some of the MPs who backed the three candidates who fell at the first hurdle.
They will also be looking to persuade MPs who backed one of their rivals to switch their allegiances by spelling out why they believe they are the candidate capable of building a broad coalition of support to challenge Mr Johnson.
Who could the MPs who supported the three eliminated candidates now back?
Dominic Raab, who finished fourth with 27 votes, will be hopeful of securing the support of many of the MPs who backed Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom.
Both have advocated a similarly hardline approach to Brexit as Mr Raab but Mr Johnson will also have his eye on winning over a lot of their backers with his own pledge to deliver Brexit on October 31.
The 10 MPs who backed Mark Harper, a candidate with a softer approach to Brexit, will be targeted by the likes of Mr Hunt, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock.
Boris Johnson is now the prohibitive favourite to succeed Theresa May after securing the support of 114 Tory MPs in the first round of voting
What will happen after Tuesday’s results?
It is the job of Tory MPs to cut the list of candidates to two and after Tuesday’s vote there will then follow further ballots until the chosen pair remain.
Conservative Party members will then be asked to choose who they want to be their next leader with the final two candidates expected to face a series of hustings events across the country.
The overall winner of the contest is expected to be announced in the week of July 22.
So does Boris have it sewn up?
Previous Tory leadership contests have shown that the person who leads the race at the start of the process does not always finish in first.
Leadership campaigns are also volatile and it is distinctly possible that an unforeseen event in the coming weeks could radically shake up the battle for Number 10.
Mr Johnson is in pole position but there is still plenty of time for that to change.