Former chancellor Rishi Sunak and trade minister Penny Mordaunt on Wednesday emerged as frontrunners in the race to be the next Conservative party leader, as MPs prepared to further narrow the field.
In the first round of voting by Tory MPs for their next leader and prime minister, Sunak came first with 88 votes — a quarter of the parliamentary party — while Mordaunt was second with 67.
Two contenders were knocked out of the race to succeed Boris Johnson: former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who both failed to secure the requisite support of 30 Tory MPs to go into the next round of voting.
The four other contenders left in the contest are foreign secretary Liz Truss, who received 50 votes on Thursday, followed by ex-equalities minister Kemi Badenoch on 40, House of Commons foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat on 37, and attorney-general Suella Braverman on 32.
Conservative MPs will reduce the number of candidates further in a second round of voting on Thursday — the contender with the lowest level of support will fall out of the race.
MPs must cut the field to two candidates by Thursday next week. Tory party members will then vote to choose the winner.
Sunak’s supporters are increasingly hopeful he will make it on to the final shortlist.
One Sunak ally said MPs recognised that “Rishi has the best experience and plans to deal with the current economic situation”.
Unlike several other candidates, Sunak has insisted tax cuts cannot be implemented until surging inflation has been brought under control.
Sunak has made himself unpopular with some Tory MPs, including rightwingers, by raising taxes to pay for the Covid-19 crisis and improvements to public services.
But his campaign was boosted later on Wednesday by an endorsement from Hunt, who praised the former chancellor for his economic record and “standards of integrity”.
Mordaunt emerged as favourite to challenge Sunak on the final shortlist when she launched her campaign on Wednesday with a pledge to return to traditional Tory values of “low tax, a small state and personal responsibility”.
Her campaign was boosted by a YouGov poll of Tory members that put her far ahead of other candidates.
The bookmakers’ odds on her winning the contest shortened after the poll suggested she would beat Sunak by 67 per cent to 28 per cent in the ballot of party activists.
Although Truss came third in the first round, Conservative party insiders said she was struggling to combat Mordaunt’s momentum. One said Truss had put in a “surprisingly poor performance”.
Truss’s campaign team said she wants rightwing Tory MPs to unite behind her candidacy.
“Now is the time for colleagues to unite behind the candidate who will cut taxes, deliver the real economic change we need from day one and ensure Putin loses in Ukraine,” it added.
If the right of the parliamentary party were to rally round Truss, the other place on the final shortlist might go to Mordaunt instead of Sunak, meaning the Tories would have their third female leader.
Truss will aim to bolster her chances with a formal campaign launch on Thursday in which she will pledge to continue Johnson’s levelling-up agenda to tackle the UK’s regional inequalities, but “in a Conservative way”.
Reflecting on her comprehensive school education in Leeds, she will say: “Everyone in our great country should be born with the same opportunities and be able to know that the town they are born in has opportunity.”
Braverman’s team said the attorney-general was not throwing in the towel, in spite of only just crossing the 30-vote threshold to fight the next round.