Votes are being counted to decide who will challenge Boris Johnson for the chance to be the next Tory leader and prime minster.
Tory MPs have been urged not to turn the contest to become the next prime minister into a “personal psychodrama” involving clear frontrunner Mr Johnson and Michael Gove, who finished second in the penultimate round of voting.
Supporters of Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – who finished third in that round – said Conservative MPs should not allow the final contest to involve bitter rivals Mr Gove and Mr Johnson.
Just two votes separated Mr Gove, on 61, and Mr Hunt, on 59, in the fourth ballot – the first time the Environment Secretary had come second.
As Tory MPs voted for the fifth and final time to select the two candidates who will be on the final ballot paper sent to Conservative members, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox argued that Mr Hunt should go through rather than Mr Gove.
“I think it’s our job to provide good governance not entertain the media,” he said.
Mr Gove’s decision to stand for the leadership in 2016 torpedoed Mr Johnson’s campaign then, and the wounds have not healed.
A source in Mr Hunt’s campaign said: “Boris and Michael are great candidates but we have seen their personal psychodrama before: it’s time to offer the country someone the EU will actually talk to.
“Jeremy is the candidate who can best unify the party and deliver Brexit.”
But Mr Gove insisted that a run-off between him and Mr Johnson would be a “civilised debate of ideas about the future of our country.”
A source in Mr Gove’s campaign said the final round of voting was “too close to call”.
Mr Johnson secured 157 votes in the fourth round – more than half the 313 Tory MPs – and his commanding lead has led to speculation some of his supporters could choose to back Mr Hunt to ensure Mr Gove does not make the run-off.
Mr Johnson denied being involved in “dark arts” to block Mr Gove from making the final two.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a supporter of Mr Johnson, said any “dirty tricks” by supporters of the former foreign secretary to try and knock Mr Gove out of the contest would be “silly”.
He told the Press Association: “I think people should always vote for the candidate they support.
“It is really silly to try and game elections because you can find that your candidate then loses.”
In the fourth round of voting on Thursday morning, Home Secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated with 34 votes, but declined to say who he would go on to support.
Thursday morning’s vote saw two Tory MPs spoil their ballots, an apparent indication that they did not have faith in any of the remaining candidates to lead the country.