The race for the Tory leadership is hotting up with another candidate facing the axe on Wednesday following a TV debate which saw no clear winner.
Conservative MPs will decide which of the five remaining contenders – Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid – deserves their support in a third elimination round.
Dominic Raab was the latest to be forced out on Tuesday, as the runners are whittled down to a final pair for the party membership to choose between.
The first debate involving frontrunner Mr Johnson on Tuesday night is unlikely to have swayed many MPs’ minds, ending with no clear winner after a fractious debate taking in Brexit, Islamophobia and climate change.
However, Michael Gove claimed he “won the debate” on BBC Newsnight, “because I had the most detailed answers and I have a clear plan to how we can deliver Brexit and make sure we get all the benefits of life outside the European Union.”
As the candidate who currently has the fewest number of backers, there are rumours Sajid Javid could drop out, but supporter Stephen Crabb MP told Newsnight his favourite had performed well in the debates and was not about to quit.
“Did Sajid Javid look like a man who’s about to throw in the towel or about to be knocked out of the contest?” Mr Crabb said.
“He fought tonight, I thought he gave – in a difficult format – he gave a good display of what he can offer the country.”
During the BBC debate, Mr Johnson’s rivals had rounded on him over his ambition to give people earning more than £50,000 a tax cut.
Just hours after clearly winning the second round of voting among Tory MPs – which saw Mr Raab eliminated – Mr Johnson faced his opponents in a TV studio for the first time, having ducked the previous televised debate.
He came under fire for his tax plans, and was also taken to task over his comments comparing veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.
Mr Johnson said he would lift the National Insurance threshold for the low-paid, but there should be a “debate” about the 40p higher income tax rate, which currently kicks in at £50,000.
“It does seem to be very odd that in the Conservative Party people should seriously question whether it is right to try to lift nurses and heads of maths departments and police inspectors out of the top rate of tax,” he said.
But Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt said people accused the Tories of being “the party of the rich” and “we must never fall into the trap of doing tax cuts for the rich and confirming that prejudice”.
Environment Secretary Mr Gove said “cutting taxes for folk who earn what MPs earn and what millionaires earn, I think that is wrong”.
Mr Stewart, whose campaign has gained momentum, hit out at his rivals for making promises on Brexit and taxes that they could not keep.
Calling for “honest and realistic” politics he said: “The thing that slightly depresses me in this debate is everybody is promising things – they are promising they are going to get a new deal out of Brussels, that they are not going to get, they are promising they are going to get a no-deal through Parliament, which they can’t deliver.
“And they are now promising – cumulatively, all of them together – have promised nearly £84 billion worth of tax cuts.”
Mr Stewart said money should be spent on public services rather than cutting taxes.
During the debate the candidates clashed over Brexit:
– Mr Stewart insisted that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was the only route out of the European Union, while “everybody else is staring at the wall shouting ‘Believe in Britain’.”
– Mr Gove said the Withdrawal Agreement had already been rejected three times and “you cannot simply re-present the same cold porridge for a fourth time and ask people to say that’s what they want”.
– Mr Johnson said the October 31 deadline for leaving the EU must be met “otherwise, I’m afraid, we face a catastrophic loss of confidence in politics”.
– Mr Javid said it had been a “mistake” to have a flexible deadline, and the October 31 date would concentrate minds on both sides of the Brexit negotiations.
– Mr Hunt said he would delay beyond October 31 if a deal was in reach, as “if we were nearly there, then I would take a bit longer”, a point echoed by Mr Gove, who said he would allow “extra time” to be played to secure an agreement.
Mr Johnson had earlier built on his lead in the ballot of Tory MPs, securing 126 votes – 12 more than the first round – putting him 80 ahead of Mr Hunt who had 46 votes, up three.
Mr Gove put on four votes to reach 41, while Mr Stewart surged into fourth place on 37, gaining 18 votes since last week.
Mr Javid scraped into the next stage of the contest, just meeting the threshold of 33 votes – a gain of 10 – while Mr Raab was eliminated with 30 votes.