Tory leadership contender Rory Stewart has revealed he is in talks with Environment Secretary Michael Gove about “combining forces” in the battle to be next prime minister.
The International Development Secretary said discussions centred on who would be best placed to challenge Boris Johnson in the run-off between the last two candidates left standing.
Mr Stewart told the BBC: “We are talking about combining forces because it’s clear that Boris is going into the last round.
“And the question is ‘who is best placed to sit on stage with Boris Johnson, and who is best placed to ask the testing questions that need to be asked?'”
Mr Stewart said he and Mr Gove would need to discuss how to get a Brexit deal through, adding: “We would have to agree to compromise and if neither of us were prepared to budge on our analysis of the situation then, of course, we couldn’t combine as a team.”
However, Mr Stewart’s camp made clear that if he did form a pact with Mr Gove, it would be the International Development Secretary who would want to remain in the race.
A 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.”
A Gove campaign 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 to 37 votes in Tuesday’s second ballot of Tory MPs, leaving him just four votes behind Mr Gove.
The move came as 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 in the race to become the next prime minister 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 must be met, warning that otherwise there would be a “catastrophic loss of confidence in politics”.
But Mr Hunt accused the former foreign secretary of lacking clarity on whether he guaranteed delivering Brexit 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.”
Mr Hunt, who came second in the second Tory leadership ballot on Tuesday, also said he was best placed to cut a deal with Brussels on Brexit, saying: “We need a negotiator.”
He said a negotiator has three qualities: “The first is it has to be someone the other side trust, because you don’t do a deal with somebody you don’t trust.
“Secondly, it has got to be someone who doesn’t blink. And thirdly, it has got to be somebody who is prepared to walk away.
“Now, the danger is that if we choose the wrong person now, we will have no trust, no negotiation, no deal, and possibly, if we have an election, no Brexit.”
Another candidate will face the axe on Wednesday afternoon – with Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt, Mr Gove, Mr Stewart and Sajid Javid battling it out for the top job.
The first debate on Tuesday night is unlikely to have swayed many MPs’ minds, ending with no clear winner after a fractious debate taking in Brexit, Islamophobia and climate change.
However, Mr Gove claimed he “won the debate” on BBC Newsnight, “because I had the most detailed answers and I have a clear plan to how we can deliver Brexit and make sure we get all the benefits of life outside the European Union”.
As the candidate who currently has the fewest number of backers, there are rumours Mr Javid could drop out, but supporter Stephen Crabb told the BBC his favoured candidate had performed well in the debates and was not about to quit.
“Did Sajid Javid look like a man who’s about to throw in the towel or about to be knocked out of the contest?” Mr Crabb said.
“He fought tonight, I thought he gave – in a difficult format – he gave a good display of what he can offer the country.”
During the BBC debate, Mr Johnson’s rivals had rounded on him over his ambition to give people earning more than £50,000 a tax cut.
Just hours after winning the second round of voting among Tory MPs – which saw Mr Raab eliminated – Mr Johnson faced his opponents in a TV studio for the first time, having ducked the previous televised debate.
He came under fire for his tax plans, and was also taken to task over his comments comparing veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.