Defence secretary Ben Wallace has ruled himself out of the Conservative Party leadership contest despite his status as a favourite among the Tory grassroots.
One of the top contenders to replace Boris Johnson, Mr Wallace said he wanted to focus on his country job of “keeping this great country safe”.
“After careful consideration and discussing with colleagues and family, I have taken the decision not to enter the contest for leadership of the Conservative Party,” Mr Wallace tweeted on Saturday.
The cabinet minister added: “It has not been an easy choice to make, but my focus is on my current job and keeping this great country safe.”
His withdrawal boosts the chances of early frontrunner Rishi Sunak, who announced his candidacy on Friday with a slick campaign video and promise not to make the “fairytale” tax cut promises some his rivals are expected to offer.
Mr Wallace was widely viewed as a favourite among Tory members, who get to choose between the two final candidates, having topped several recent online ConservativeHome survies of the party’s grassroots.
The defence secretary also beat all other contenders in a YouGov poll of Tory members earlier this week, though the small sample size of such polls has produced some contradictory results.
An Opinium poll of Tory members for Channel 4 put Mr Sunak in front on 25 per cent, ahead of foreign secretary Liz Truss on 21 per cent, with Mr Wallace further back on 12 per cent.
One MP who had backed Mr Wallace said he had been picking up a lot of support from MPs who stayed in government and were uncomfortable with Mr Sunak’s “treachery”.
The defence secretary had support from several One Nation moderates, and had been considered a “unity” candidate who gain some support from the right of the party.
“He’s a lot of people’s second favourite choice – I’ve yet to hear anyone say anything bad about Ben,” the MP said prior to his withdrawal.
Tories are rushing to take sides in the race to become the new prime minister after ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak declared he has set his sights on the top job.
Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch became the fourth candidate to throw her hat into the ring – promising tax cuts and declaring her opposition “identity politics”.
Tom Tugendhat, a moderate from the “one nation” wing, and attorney general Suella Braverman have both picked up several endorsements after launching their campaigns.
Mr Sunak has come under fire from Johnson loyalists even before the launch, with Brexit minister Jacob Rees-Mogg denouncing him as a “high tax chancellor” who failed to curb inflation.
Steve Baker, who has dropped his own ambitions to be leader and backed attorney general Suella Braverman, claimed Mr Sunak is in an “unfortunate bind” as he has got to “double down” on his own economic policy to date.
One top No 10 official told the Financial Times that Mr Sunak was “a treacherous b*****d”. A Johnson loyalist in the cabinet told the newspaper: “Rishi will get everything he deserves for leading the charge in bringing down the prime minister.”
Jake Berry, leader of the Northern Research Group (NRG) representing MPs in the north of England, ruled out a leadership bid – saying he would now push others to fulfil the “levelling up” agenda.
Meanwhile, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, 1922 Committee treasurer, said rules could be changed to thin down the crowded field and speed up the process.
“Clearly what we would want to do, and I think even the candidates would admit this is, is to eliminate some of those that are clearly not going to get enough support to get in the last two at a relatively early stage,” said Sir Geoffrey.
Mr Clifton-Brown said this could be done by upping the number of signatures from other Conservative lawmakers required to be nominated – and by increasing the threshold of votes candidates must receive to progress to the next round.
Senior Tory MP Sir Charles Walker said leadership hopefuls who have “no hope” of winning should drop out now, with around 12 MPs announcing their candidacy or considering a bid to be leader.
To take part, candidates need eight nominations. Candidates must then get 5 per cent of the votes to stay in the running – 18 votes – during the first round. They must get 10 per cent, 36 MPs, in the second round.
The candidate with the fewest votes is the eliminated until two candidates remain, a process expected to be done by 21 July. But Sir Charles said rules could be changed so that candidates would have to get a higher level of support at each round to pass.