Rishi Sunak has won the first Tory leadership ballot but Penny Mordaunt is closing in on the frontrunner – amid evidence she is the favourite among party members.
The former chancellor secured 88 votes in the poll of all Conservative MPs, ahead of Ms Mordaunt (67) and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary (50).
Jeremy Hunt, the defeated 2019 leadership contender, and chancellor Nadhim Zahawi were knocked out – leaving six contenders for the second ballot on Thursday.
The result is a massive boost for Ms Mordaunt, who is now the main challenger to Mr Sunak – the candidate long expected to top the ballot among Tory MPs.
But the final choice of party leader – and the UK’s next prime minister – will be made by the fewer than 200,000 Conservative party members, after hustings through August.
An explosive poll today suggests the little-known Ms Mordaunt, a former international development and defence secretary, would defeat Mr Sunak by 67 per cent to 28 per cent.
There will now be enormous pressure on MPs to ensure Ms Mordaunt is put before members as a candidate, when the race is whittled down to a final two contenders next week.
She is now the bookmakers’ favourite – and landed the support of Tory vice-chair Mike Penning, who quit the post in order to support her.
The other contenders left standing are right-wingers Kemi Badenoch (40) and Suella Braverman (32), with the centrist Tom Tugendhat (37) squeezed between them.
But all three are thought to have little chance in the ballots to come – which are likely to conclude with a choice of Sunak vs Mordaunt or Sunak vs Truss.
Ms Truss put a brave face on what is undoubtedly the disappointment of winning just 50 votes, pointing to her experience over that of her rival, Ms Mordaunt.
“Liz has the experience to deliver the benefits of Brexit from day one, grow our economy and support working families,” a spokesperson said.
Mr Tugendhat, who will now hope to gather up Mr Hunt’s votes, described it as “a fantastic result”, but is facing an uphill task to stay in the race beyond tomorrow’s second ballot.
The party’s 1922 Committee is thought to be discussing a threshold of 40 or more votes to avoid being knocked out – to slim the race to three of four contenders for further votes next week.
The ousted Mr Hunt, who won just 18 votes, urged the remaining candidates to avoid “smears and attack” that “bring short-term tactical gain but always backfire long term”.
“The nation is watching & they’ve had enough of our drama; be the broad church & unbeatable, election winning machine that our country deserves,” he tweeted.
Jonathan Gullis, an influential backbencher and Zahawi backer, called on fellow rightwingers to unite behind a single candidate, to ensure a place on the final ballot.
“The right of the Tory party need to unite and decide who they are going to get behind,” he told The Independent, without suggesting who should pull out.