Battle to take on Johnson as Tory leadership race narrows to final two
The Tory race to become the next prime minister enters its final phase at Westminster as rivals compete to take on Boris Johnson.
Former foreign secretary Mr Johnson appears certain to make it through to the next stage of the process, having topped the ballot in each of the three rounds of the contest so far and securing the votes of 143 of the 313 Tory MPs.
Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid also remain in the contest, but two rounds of voting on Thursday will whittle the field down to a final pairing.
At each round the MP with the lowest total will be eliminated, with the final announcement due to be made at 6pm.
The next Tory leader and prime minister will be chosen by Conservative members next month from the two candidates that make it through.
Sources in Mr Johnson's camp played down a report in the Daily Telegraph that his supporters might lend their votes to Mr Javid in order to knock Mr Gove out of the contest.
Mr Gove's decision to stand for the leadership in 2016 effectively torpedoed Mr Johnson's campaign then and the wounds have not healed.
But Brexiteer MP Andrea Jenkyns, who is backing Mr Johnson, told ITV's Peston there would be "some poetic justice" if the bitter rivals were in the final run-off.
She said that although there were "tricks going on" in the contest, Mr Johnson's campaign was not to blame.
Mr Gove insisted "I do think I would be a better prime minister than Boris" but "he has formidable qualities and he is a big part of the Conservative Party's and the country's future".
While Mr Johnson has "communication skills aplenty", the Environment Secretary told LBC that "I believe that I would be better equipped than any of the other candidates" to take Jeremy Corbyn "to the cleaners" with a "forensic" examination of his policies.
In Wednesday's ballot, Mr Johnson received 143 votes, up from 126 on Tuesday, with Mr Hunt on 54, up from 46.
Mr Gove was in third place, up 10 from 41 to 51 votes, while Mr Javid picked up five extra votes to reach 38.
Very much looking forward to the ballots tomorrow. In it to win it! #TeamSaj— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) 19 June 2019
Rory Stewart was eliminated from the contest after his tally fell from 37 to 27 and he suggested there had been "shenanigans" in the run-up to the ballot.
But after the result he told Peston: "I don't think it was dirty tricks by Boris.
"I think what happened is that somehow some combination of my message and momentum convinced the other camps to tighten up, so I think most of my votes will have gone to Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and some to Sajid."
Amid speculation that Mr Javid has his eyes on becoming Mr Johnson's chancellor, the Home Secretary insisted his sights were set on Number 10 and he was "in it to win it".
Mr Hunt said he was the person best-placed to take on Mr Johnson, promising to put his "heart and soul" into the contest.
"The stakes are too high to allow anyone to sail through untested," he said.