The contest for a place alongside Boris Johnson on the final ballot paper in the Tory leadership election is hotting up as Conservative MPs vote for a third time.
Former foreign secretary Mr Johnson appears assured of being one of the two candidates who will face a vote by 160,000 Tory members to choose the next prime minister after topping the ballot in the first two rounds of voting.
His campaign gathered further momentum with the support of former rival Dominic Raab, who was eliminated from the contest on Tuesday.
The battle for a place alongside him intensified, with Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid fighting to remain in the race.
Mr Stewart said he was in talks with rival Michael Gove on “combining forces” in the contest.
Such a move would be seen at Westminster as a “Stop Boris” bid in the battle for the Tory crown.
Mr Stewart gained more support than any other leadership contender in the second round of voting, but his 37 votes were just four ahead of Mr Javid.
As MPs began voting in the third round, which will see the candidate with the lowest total eliminated, Home Secretary Mr Javid said he was “quietly confident”.
On Twitter he said: “My pitch to those not currently backing me: 1) We need a robust but constructive contest. 2) I am the only credible change candidate with the experience to do the job and ability to unite the party.”
After casting his vote, Mr Gove said: “I’ve got wonderful support from wonderful people so fingers crossed.”
International Development Secretary Mr Stewart said discussions with Mr Gove centred on who would be best placed to challenge the former foreign secretary in the run-off between the last two candidates left standing.
Mr Stewart insisted he was the candidate with “the most momentum, energy and public appeal” adding that he spoke to Mr Gove regularly and “hope he would have a big role in any government”.
However, the two candidates’ camps clashed over who would remain in the race if Mr Stewart and the Environment Secretary joined forces.
A Stewart campaign spokeswoman said: “Clearly at some point people will need to combine teams.
“But any team that gets combined, Rory wants to lead it. Rory’s in this to win.”
And a source in the Gove camp insisted the Environment Secretary had no intention of quitting.
The source said: “We are in it to win it and we would obviously welcome the support of any candidate that wanted to drop out and support us.”
Mr Stewart nearly doubled his backing in Tuesday’s second ballot, putting him just four votes behind Mr Gove.
Explaining his decision to back Mr Johnson, Brexiteer Mr Raab said he was the sole contender who would ensure Brexit happened by October 31.
He told the London Evening Standard: “Boris will make sure we leave the EU on time and move on to uniting the country behind a positive programme where everyone can benefit from the UK’s success.”
But fellow leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt took a swipe at Mr Johnson’s Brexit stance, insisting his rival has an unclear policy and suggesting he is not trusted in Brussels.
The Foreign Secretary said he was “not entirely sure” what the front-runner believes when it comes to when Britain will leave the EU.
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) June 19, 2019
In a televised debate on Tuesday evening, Mr Johnson said the October 31 deadline for Brexit was “eminently feasible”.
But Mr Hunt accused the former foreign secretary of lacking clarity on whether he guaranteed getting the UK out of the EU by the end of October.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Well, I am not entirely sure what he believes on this, having listened to him last night.
“You have to think these things through because prime ministers have to make these judgments.”
An opinion poll suggested Mr Stewart did best in the fractious televised debate on Tuesday, even though he admitted to a “lacklustre” performance.
Some 35% of all viewers surveyed by YouGov put him in first place, although significantly, given Tory members will choose the next prime minister, Conservative voters put him in third place after Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt.