Tory MPs have been urged not to let the contest to become the next prime minister turn into a “personal psychodrama” involving Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
The Environment Secretary has overtaken Jeremy Hunt to become the main rival to leadership campaign frontrunner Boris Johnson.
But allies of the Foreign Secretary urged Conservative MPs not to allow the final contest to involve bitter rivals Mr Gove and Mr Johnson.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated from the race after the fourth round of voting and rival camps are engaged in a frantic effort to pick up some his 34 votes before the final ballot on Thursday afternoon.
The two candidates remaining in the race, who will then go on to a ballot of 160,000 Tory members, will be announced at around 6pm.
Mr Johnson secured votes from more than half of the 313 Tory MPs and appears certain of victory in the final ballot.
“I am incredibly grateful, but we have much more work to do,” he said after securing 157 votes.
Delighted to have the support of over half of all Conservative MPs in the fourth ballot. I am incredibly grateful, but we have much more work to do.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) June 20, 2019
Mr Gove secured 61 votes, up 10 from the previous vote, while Mr Hunt was on 59, up five.
Mr Hunt had been second in each of the three previous rounds of voting.
Absolutely delighted to come second in the latest ballot! It’s all to play for in the final ballot this afternoon. If I make the final two I look forward to having a civilised debate of ideas about the future of our country. #Gove4PM#ReadyToLead
— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) June 20, 2019
Mr Gove’s decision to stand for the leadership in 2016 torpedoed Mr Johnson’s own campaign then, and the wounds have not healed.
Allies of Mr Hunt urged Mr Javid’s supporters to back the Foreign Secretary to take on Mr Johnson, warning that if Mr Gove made the final two it would extend the “psychodrama” and could damage the party.
A source in Mr Hunt’s camp 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.”
Critical decision now for all colleagues is what choice do we present to the country? And what future? Choose me for unity over division, and I will put Boris through his paces and then bring our party and country back together.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) June 20, 2019
Mr Hunt himself said his colleagues had a “critical decision” to make on “what choice do we present to the country?”
He said: “Choose me for unity over division and I will put Boris through his paces and then bring our party and country back together.”
But Mr Gove insisted that a run-off between him and Mr Johnson would be a “civilised debate”.
He said he was “absolutely delighted to come second”, adding: “It’s all to play for in the final ballot this afternoon.
“If I make the final two I look forward to having a civilised debate of ideas about the future of our country.”
Mr Javid is not expected to publicly endorse any of the remaining candidates.
But Mr Gove was quick to praise the Home Secretary for a “brilliant and inspirational campaign” adding:” You are a hero and a great friend. You have so much more to give the party and the country in the future.”
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, a popular figure within the party, said she was now supporting Mr Gove having previously been a backer of Mr Javid, although as she is not an MP she does not have a vote at this stage of the contest.
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore, another former supporter of Mr Javid, said he was now backing Mr Johnson.
I have decided that with the support of the majority of MPs and members, @BorisJohnson can unite the party and deliver Brexit with a liberal agenda for the future, that backs freedom of talent and must as a priority protect our European research and education partnerships 2/2
— Chris Skidmore (@CSkidmoreUK) June 20, 2019
There has been widespread speculation that Mr Johnson’s comfortable lead could allow some of his supporters to vote tactically in order to kill off Mr Gove’s campaign.
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.”