Boris Johnson has pencilled his name onto the ballot for the final Conservative leadership run-off, leaving six other candidates to fight it out for the privilege of joining him.
The former foreign secretary insisted there was a “long way to go” before he can claim the keys to Number 10, but he cemented his status as the favourite after receiving 114 votes from Tory MPs in the first round of the contest.
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His successor Jeremy Hunt trailed behind by 71 votes, leaving a crowded field of potential challengers with pressure now on those at the bottom of the field to quit the race and lend their support to a stronger candidate.
Three candidates – Mark Harper, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey – were eliminated from the race, leaving seven MPs still in the running.
Mr Hunt said he was “delighted” to have finished second behind Mr Johnson on 43 votes and, in a swipe at his top rival, stressed that a “serious” leader was needed.
“We face a crucial choice – who can negotiate some better choices than the bad ones we face?” he said. “The stakes have rarely been higher for our country. This serious moment calls for a serious leader.”
Environment secretary Michael Gove, who was six votes behind Mr Hunt, said he wanted to have a “proper debate about ideas”. Both Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson have yet to commit to take part in the first televised debate scheduled for Sunday night on Channel 4.
The 30 votes which had been won by Mr Harper, Mrs Leadsom and Ms McVey are now up for grabs, with the remaining leadership candidates set to battle for support to ensure they can get over the threshold required in the next round.
Candidates will need 33 votes to remain in the contest on Tuesday, when the next ballot of MPs is held.
International development secretary Rory Stewart, who has been praised for his energetic campaign, but struggled to secure support from his fellow MPs, insisted “we can win this” after securing 19 votes – just enough to survive the first ballot.
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Mr Stewart said it was a “very open race” and pledged to reach out to “every single colleague” ahead of the next round.
“I’m going to have to now say to those who are neck and neck with me, I’m afraid this is the time to be serious,” he said.
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab insisted he would not exit the race despite facing a struggle to draw MPs away from Mr Johnson, who has a similar stance on leaving the EU. “This campaign is just getting started and we’ve got a good base to build on,” said Mr Raab, who got 27 votes.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford claimed Mr Johnson’s victory showed the Tories have “lurched even further to the extremes in an attempt to pander to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party”, while Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird warned the no-deal Brexit several candidates say they would accept would be “catastrophic”.
But the Scottish Tory MP Colin Clark said the scale of Mr Johnson’s victory “proves Boris is not polarising”.
“This demonstrates he can bring the party together to shut down Farage, beat Corbyn and stop Sturgeon,” Mr Clark said. “Along with Scottish Conservative colleagues I will make sure the Union is at the top of the leadership agenda.”
Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond has written to the Tory leadership candidates asking them to pledge to keep national debt falling every year.
Mr Hammond said the Conservative Party had a “hard-won” reputation for fiscal and economic competence, and that it was “vital” it was not thrown away.
“If we do not commit to getting our debt down after a nine-year run of uninterrupted economic growth, how can we demonstrate a dividing line between the fiscal responsibility of our party and the reckless promises of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn?” he wrote.