Boris Johnson has again secured a comprehensive victory in the latest ballot of Conservative MPs to choose their new party leader and the UK’s next prime minister.
The former foreign secretary attracted the support of 126 MPs, while Dominic Raab dropped out of the contest after failing to reach the threshold of 33 votes needed to progress to the next round.
The ex-Brexit secretary secured the backing of just 30 Tory MPs and is eliminated as a candidate ahead of tomorrow’s third ballot.
Soon after the results were announced, two of Mr Raab’s backers revealed they were switching their support to Mr Johnson, with more expected to follow.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who secured 46 votes, Environment Secretary Michael Gove (41 votes), International Development Secretary Rory Stewart (37 votes) and Home Secretary Sajid Javid (33 votes) remain in the contest and move through to Wednesday’s third round.
However, aside from Mr Stewart – who added another 18 votes from last week’s first round – and Mr Johnson, the runaway front runner, the remaining candidates are likely to be concerned their campaigns have little momentum.
Mr Hunt, Mr Gove and Mr Javid only attracted an extra 17 votes between them since last week’s voting.
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Stewart admitted he was “honoured” but “surprised” to have survived through to the next ballot, adding: “I was very much the underdog and it’s extraordinary to nearly double my vote.”
By Thursday, the remaining field of five will have been whittled down to two through further ballots of MPs.
The final pairing will then be put to the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members to decide a winner.
Mr Stewart has been the candidate most willing to directly attack his fellow Old Etonian Mr Johnson during the contest so far.
This has prompted backers of other contenders, in the face of Mr Stewart’s growing momentum, to warn against an acrimonious “blue-on-blue” contest in the final pairing.
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, a supporter of Mr Hunt, suggested there had been tactical voting by MPs in Tuesday’s ballot.
She told Sky News: “We need to think about the kind of final we want for the party.
“We need serious people to put forward serious ideas about how we’re going to deliver the best deal that we can get on Brexit, not just settle for a WTO [World Trade Organisation] exit.
“We also want a contest that’s based on issues and serious ideas, we don’t want entertainment.
“We’re selecting a prime minister, not just a leader of our party.”
In a Twitter post after Tuesday’s vote, Mr Gove called for two Leave-supporting candidates to make the final round.
“The final two should be Brexiteers who are able to take on [Jeremy] Corbyn, unite the party and deliver Brexit,” he wrote.
Aside from his fellow Vote Leave campaigner Mr Johnson, Mr Gove is the only Brexit supporter now left among the remaining five candidates.
As well as his clear popularity among MPs, Mr Johnson is also the best-supported among the Conservatives’ grassroots.
In a survey of Tory members by the influential ConservativeHome website, Mr Johnson was favoured as the next prime minister by 55% of respondents.
Mr Stewart was second favourite, backed by 16% of those members asked, with Dominic Raab third (10%) and Michael Gove fourth (7%).
The website’s research also showed Mr Johnson would beat each of the remaining candidates in a head-to-head run-off.
Rival contenders will tonight have the chance to try and limit Mr Johnson’s momentum during a BBC debate, after he previously declined to appear in Sunday’s Channel 4 debate.
Mr Johnson was also the only candidate not to take part in a hustings events in front of Westminster journalists this week, increasing criticism of him for avoiding scrutiny.
But Mr Johnson’s campaign received a major boost earlier on Tuesday when he secured the backing of former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, who was defeated as a candidate in the first round of the leadership contest.
Yet, questions were later raised about Mr Johnson’s Brexit policy when a clip of him talking to party members was passed to Sky News.
Mr Johnson spoke of a need to “disaggregate” elements of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, despite having previously described the prime minister’s deal as “dead”.
Leading Brexiteer Mark Francois, who is backing Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership, has also claimed Mr Johnson is “the only candidate to state that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead”.
Former education secretary Nicky Morgan, a supporter of Mr Hunt, told Sky News: “At the heart of this is the question which Boris appears to be giving different answers on – does he broadly accept the withdrawal agreement, or is it dead as he is saying to others?”
Meanwhile, David Morris – another supporter of Mr Hunt – wrote to all his fellow Tory MPs to express concerns about Mr Johnson’s pledge to reduce taxes for higher earners.