Michael Gove has emerged as Boris Johnson’s main rival for the Tory leadership after the latest round of voting by MPs.
The Environment Secretary overtook Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to finish second in the fourth round of voting, as Boris Johnson extended his lead in the race to become the next prime minister.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated from the race and a final round of voting will now decide the final two candidates who will go to a ballot of Tory members.
Mr Johnson secured 157 votes from the 313 Tory MPs and appears certain of victory in the final ballot, unless he loses support.
He said he was “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,” he said.
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.
Mr Gove 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 was eliminated with 34 votes, four fewer than he secured on Wednesday, and there were two spoiled ballots.
The rival camps will now engage in a frantic few hours of effort to win round Mr Javid’s supporters before the next round of voting, which begins at 3.30pm.
The final pairing will be revealed after the votes have been counted at around 6pm.
The prospect of a final contest between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove comes against a background of bitter rivalry between the two, following the events of the 2016 leadership race.
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.”