Supporters of Michael Gove will round on Jeremy Hunt over his support for staying in the EU in 2016 as the pair battle to become the final challenger to Boris Johnson.
One MP backing Mr Johnson said that unless the ballot of party members to choose between the final two candidates featured two Brexiteers “I’m afraid the result will be very predictable”.
Rory Stewart’s upstart bid for the Tory leadership came to an end yesterday evening after ten of his supporters abandoned him, leaving him in last place in the final ballot. Meanwhile, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond issued a warning to the leadership field, promising to “fight and fight again” for economic pragmatism and saying a no-deal scenario would endanger the Union while burning through a £27 billion Brexit war chest.
Talks are understood to have already begun between Mr Stewart and Mr Gove over a possible endorsement.
Mr Stewart hinted at “dark arts” being deployed by the Johnson campaign to push him out of the contest by loaning votes to Home Secretary Sajid Javid. MPs blamed the collapse in support on a lacklustre performance in the second live TV debate on Tuesday night, in which Mr Stewart appeared exasperated and removed his tie halfway through the programme.
There was also speculation at Westminster that some of Mr Johnson’s backers had lent him support in order to ensure that hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab was eliminated in Tuesday’s second ballot.
Others claimed Mr Johnson’s rivals had lent support to Mr Stewart to ensure he could appear on the BBC TV debate to attack the frontrunner.
One of Mr Stewart’s supporters was quoted promising to “find out which of those thieving, mendacious, lying bastards let us down”.
The International Development Secretary was praised by his rivals for an inventive campaign that saw him engage directly with the public, in person and on social media.
Mr Stewart said: “I am so moved and inspired by the support I have received over the last few weeks – it has given me a new faith in politics, a new belief in our country.
“I didn’t get enough MPs to believe today – but they will. I remain deeply committed to you and to this country.”
Mr Johnson stretched his lead further, picking up 17 new votes for a total of 146, nearly half of the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Mr Gove closed the gap on second place, picking up ten new votes to finish on 51, just three behind Mr Hunt, who gained eight votes for a total of 54.
A Hunt supporter said the campaign had expected to slip into third after Mr Raab’s supporters redistributed their votes.
Mr Javid refused to bow out of the race after gaining five votes to finish in fourth, on 38. Two more ballots are scheduled today to reduce the field to the final two.
The Gove campaign signalled it would launch an all-out attack on Mr Hunt over Brexit to overhaul the Foreign Secretary today.
“If we want a true contest in the country, we need two Brexiteers on the final ballot,” said the MP Stephen Kerr, adding that Mr Gove was “an intuitive unionist committed to strengthening the Union”.
Mr Kerr appealed to Mr Stewart’s supporters to get on board, saying he shared “One Nation values” with Mr Gove. “I think Boris would prefer another opponent in the final two other than Michael,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt insisted that coming second for a third time meant he was the candidate best placed to take on Mr Johnson in the final stage of the contest.
“If I make it to the final I will put my heart and soul into giving him the contest of his life: in politics today the unexpected often happens,” he said.
“The stakes are too high to allow anyone to sail through untested.”
Last night the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd was reported to be hosting a dinner for Stewart supporters in a bid to win them over to Mr Hunt’s side.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said she would campaign for Mr Johnson if he wins the contest, despite suggesting he was dishonest during the 2016 EU referendum.
“I have challenged Boris Johnson, I’ve challenged lots of colleagues when I think they’ve merited challenging,” Ms Davidson told the BBC.
“I think in terms of the debates on Brexit, I didn’t call him a liar; I said that the people out there deserved the truth, and they did, and I stand by that. And if there’s something which I think deserves challenging... then I won’t resile from that, and I don’t think he would expect me too either.”
Pressed on whether she would campaign to return Mr Johnson to Downing Street in a general election, Ms Davidson – who is backing Mr Javid for the party leadership – replied: “Up against Jeremy Corbyn? Yes.”
With all four candidates still in the race saying they would be willing to consider a no-deal Brexit, Mr Hammond used a speech to the Bankers’ and Merchants’ Dinner at the Mansion House in London last night to warn of the risk it would pose to the Union.
He warned a chaotic exit from the EU would risk “soaking-up all the fiscal headroom we have built, and more”, meaning £27bn in extra borrowing.
The Chancellor called on candidates to set out how they planned to deliver a renegotiated Brexit deal, and what their Plan B was.
“I cannot imagine a Conservative and Unionist-led government actively pursuing a No-Deal Brexit; willing to risk the Union and our economic prosperity and a general election that could put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, to boot,” Mr Hammond was expected to say.
“And I will not concede the very ground we stand on. I will fight, and fight again, to remake the case for pragmatism and, yes, for compromise in our politics – to ensure an outcome that protects the Union and the prosperity of the United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Central Bank warned a disorderly no-deal Brexit would result in 110,000 fewer jobs in the Republic. Mark Cassidy, director of economics and statistics at the bank, said the effect of the UK crashing out of the EU would be severe and result in a permanent loss of economic output. He said if a deal could be secured, the negative effects of Brexit could be “contained”.
But he said the impact of a disorderly, no-deal scenario would “have very severe and immediate disruptive effects with consequences for almost all areas of economic activity”.