Liz Truss is mounting an all-out bid to overhaul Penny Mordaunt in the Tory leadership race today as the four remaining hopefuls gear up for another crucial knock-out vote.
Conservative MPs will whittle the numbers down to three this afternoon, with Rishi Sunak seemingly guaranteed a spot in the final run-off ballot of party members – but the race for second place still too close to call.
After a slow start, Ms Truss is hoping to build on her momentum from last night’s vote when she added another seven supporters to take her tally to 71.
Tory leadership contest – round three result
Rishi Sunak: 115 votes
Penny Mordaunt: 82 votes
Liz Truss: 71 votes
Kemi Badenoch: 58 votes
Tom Tugendhat: 31 votes – eliminated
Although she is still short of Ms Mordaunt’s numbers, the trade minister’s early surge appears to be stalling as she dropped a vote to 82.
She was also hit by one of her supporters, Tobias Ellwood, being stripped of the whip for being absent from a confidence vote in the government last night. The defence committee chair was on an official trip in Moldova, raising questions about dirty tricks by Boris Johnson supporters.
Kemi Badenoch will be favourite for ejection today, but is still in touch after racking up an extra nine backers to reach 58.
Ms Truss has been wooing supporters of former soldier Tom Tugendhat, who came bottom and was eliminated last night, by vowing to boost defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030.
‘We live in an increasingly dangerous world where the threat level is higher than a decade ago, and we need a stronger deterrent to face down those threats and ensure Britain leads on the global stage,’ she said.
‘Ultimately that requires more resources. My number one priority is keeping this country safe and people can trust me to do that.’
But her rivals are also courting Mr Tugendhat, with Ms Mordaunt tweeting that she had ‘admired’ him for years and Ms Badenoch saying he would be an ‘asset’ to any future Conservative government.
Leaving home this morning, Ms Badenoch said it is still ‘all to play for’.
Mr Sunak’s team had feared he would not add much to his tally, but in the event they were jubilant as he increased his score from 101 to 115.
Anything over 120 guarantees a place in the final two, as there are 358 Conservative MPs in total.
Mr Sunak has been trying to beef up his support on the Tory right today, promising harsher sentences for criminals who refuse to attend court for their sentencing hearings and a crackdown on grooming gangs.
He has also been boosted by an endorsement from former leader Lord Hague, who praised him as an ‘exceptional individual’ who can be trusted at ‘one of the hardest times to be prime minister in our lifetimes: certainly since 1979, possibly since 1945’.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are still in the leadership battle as it enters the final stages before going to a ballot of Tory members
Kemi Badenoch could be the kingmaker that selects the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom after gaining votes on the third ballot of the Tory leadership race on Monday night
Penny Mordaunt’s early surge appears to be stalling as she dropped a vote to 82 in the third round last night
HOW THE TORY LEADERSHIP RACE WILL PLAY OUT
Today – A fourth ballot will be held to whittle the numbers down to three.
Wednesday: Assuming no-one drops out, a fifth ballot will decide the final pair, ending the parliamentary phase of the contest.
21st July – MPs will head away from Westminster for their summer break.
Late July and August – CCHQ will assume responsibility for leadership election and will send out ballot papers to around 200,000 Conservative Party members. The Tory grassroots will be asked to decide between the final two candidates, with hustings events to be held across the UK.
5th September – The result of the membership ballot is announced, with the candidate receiving more than 50 per cent of the vote being declared the new Tory leader and Boris Johnson’s replacement as Prime Minister.
6th September – The new Tory leader is likely to be formally appointed as PM during a visit to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
7th September – The new PM is set to be quizzed in the House of Commons in their first ever Prime Minister’s Questions.
After the latest installment of drama last night, the candidates and their allies tried to put the best gloss on their performances.
A spokesman for the Truss campaign said: ‘Liz is the candidate to lead a bold new economic approach, cut taxes, deliver on the benefits of Brexit, unite the Party and win a General Election.
‘Tom Tugendhat ran a campaign that he can be very proud of and he has shown the depth of quality in the Conservative Party.
‘Now is the time to get behind the best candidate to deliver the economic change we need.’
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who is backing Ms Truss, insisted she had ‘gone forward’ while Ms Mordaunt’s campaign had ‘stalled and gone backwards’.
However, Ms Mordaunt said her ‘vote is steady’. ‘My vote is steady and I’m grateful to my colleagues for all their support and thrilled to be in second place once more. MPs know that I’m a strong candidate, running a truly clean campaign and putting forward a positive vision for the party and our country.
‘Tom Tugendhat MP is a friend and colleague who I’ve admired for years, I know that we are both committed to a clean start for our party and I believe he is one of the strongest assets the Conservative green benches. It was an honour to stand alongside him in this contest.’
Ms Badenoch’s biggest backer Michael Gove swiped earlier that supporters of some of the leading names were experiencing ‘buyer’s remorse’.
And his candidate said: ‘It’s all to play for. Continued momentum, closing the gap, I am the only change candidate left in the race. I’m in it to win.’
A Sunak spokeswoman said he was ‘the candidate with the clearest plan to restore trust, rebuild the economy, reunite the country and because he is best placed to beat Labour at the next election’.
Mr Tugendhat said: ‘I want to thank my team, colleagues and, most of all, the British people for their support. I have been overwhelmed by the response we have received across the country. People are ready for a clean start and our party must deliver on it and put trust back into politics.
‘I wish the remaining candidates well and look forward to continuing to serve the British people and fully supporting the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.’
The intense intrigue at Westminster came after it emerged that the candidates have endured their final TV debate in this phase.
Sky News cancelled the showdown that had been planned for tonight after both Mr Sunak and Ms Truss pulled out, with sources saying they wanted to limit infighting.
The third round result was announced in parliament by 1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady
Ms Truss changed her outfit between leaving home and going to Cabinet this morning
Rishi Sunak has seen his vote rise steadily throughout the contest, but Penny Mordaunt faded badly in the latest round
Ms Badenoch said it is ‘all to play for’ and she is ‘closing the gap’ on her rivals ahead of the next round tomorrow
Mr Sunak tweeted: ‘I want to thank all the colleagues who supported me tonight.
‘Together we can rebuild our economy, keep Brexit safe and defeat Labour.’
George Freeman, a key supporter of Ms Mordaunt, tried to put a brave face on the results, predicting that she will pick up ‘a lot’ of Mr Tugendhat’s supporters now that he has exited the contest.
He told Sky News: ‘After the three days’ pounding she’s had in the media, to be honest I’m delighted she’s held second place.
‘Nobody has been attacked so savagely in the Tory press than Penny Mordaunt and her support is strong.
‘I think the story tonight is Kemi Badenoch is becoming the heroine on the right, she’s picked up a lot of votes.
‘I think what you’ll see now is a lot of that One Nation support base for Tom Tugendhat… I think a lot of them will come to Penny as the One Nation compassionate Conservative.’
Worryingly for Ms Mordaunt, one of Mr Tugendhat’s key allies Anne-Marie Trevelyan said she expected his supporters would ‘travel as a pack’ on who to endorse next.
And she reiterated her criticism of Ms Mordaunt’s performance as a trade minister, saying colleagues had to ‘pick up the pieces’ while she spent months plotting a leadership bid.
‘The challenge in our case, in the Department for International Trade, has been that she has – in a number of situations – not been available to take up the work that was required in a number of ways, be it visits or parliamentary duties,’ Ms Trevelyan said.
Mr Duncan Smith told Sky News that Ms Truss is in ‘prime position’ to make the run-off.
‘You’ve got to understand how these things work, what happens is – in this round – those that go forward will be the ones that benefit in the next round,’ he said.
‘Liz is definitely in that, she’s in prime position to do that. Because there are still a lot of votes sitting there that are likely to come to Liz at some point once this is settled.’
Sir Iain claimed that support for Ms Badenoch had grown because Tory MPs ‘wanted to stop Penny’, adding: ‘Now they have to make a decision as to who they want to vote for.’
He urged Ms Badenoch’s supporters to ‘come together with Liz’.
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper, who is supporting Mr Sunak, hailed a ‘very solid result’ for the ex-chancellor.
‘We’re optimistic but we’re not going to take a single thing for granted,’ he told Sky News when he was asked if Mr Sunak was nailed on to reach the final pairing.
‘If you look at where the votes went, Rishi was up 14 – that was a stronger performance than any other candidate at a time when the votes that were freed up by Suella (Braverman) exiting the contest were very unlikely to come his way.’