Conservative Party members will choose between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson as the next Prime Minister of the UK, after Michael Gove was narrowly edged out of the Tory leadership contest.
Mr Gove’s supporters accused the Johnson campaign of orchestrating the final ballot of Tory MPs by lending support to the foreign secretary, who secured second place by just two votes.
The two final candidates will now campaign across the country, addressing a series of hustings events for the party’s 160,000 members ahead of a postal vote to choose the next leader of the country.
Both candidates have said they are willing to take the UK out of the EU without a deal, with Mr Johnson insisting that Brexit must take place by the deadline of 31 October.
There was a warning from EU leaders gathering in Brussels yesterday that there would be no renegotiation of the Brexit agreement and no change to the controversial backstop plan for the Irish border.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said there was “extreme hostility” to the idea of a further extension of the Brexit deadline.
The result fuelled speculation that Mr Johnson’s campaign sought to manipulate the result, after he won with 160 votes, an increase of just three on the previous round.
Rory Stewart, who was eliminated on Wednesday, had previously suggested “dark arts” were at work.
Mr Johnson’s campaign was run by the former chief whip, Gavin Williamson.
At least four supporters of home secretary Sajid Javid, who was eliminated in a previous ballot earlier in the day, had publicly declared their support for Mr Johnson.
Mr Hunt scraped into second place with 77 votes, narrowly defeating Mr Gove on 75. A Gove supporter claimed there was “clearly tactical voting to keep Michael off the final ballot”. The MP added that Mr Johnson had won “fair and square” and said: “He will win overwhelmingly with the members.”
Mr Hunt acknowledged he is the underdog in the final contest with surveys suggesting Tory members strongly back his rival, but he insisted an upset was possible. He said: “I’m the underdog – but in politics surprises happen, as they did today.”
In a video posted to social media, Mr Hunt said he was ready to give Mr Johnson “the fight of his life”.
Mr Johnson said he was “deeply honoured” to have secured the support from more than half of the Tory MPs in the Commons.
“I look forward to getting out across the UK and to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country and create a brighter future for all of us,” he said.
Mr Gove said he was “naturally disappointed, but so proud of the campaign we ran”.
His campaign manager Mel Stride said Mr Gove’s admission that he had used cocaine 20 years ago while criticising middle class drug use in newspaper columns had damaged his leadership bid. “It stalled us and meant momentum was lost at that time,” Mr Stride said.
Allies of Mr Hunt had briefed against allowing the two leaders of the Brexit Leave campaign onto the final ballot, after Mr Gove and Mr Johnson’s infamous falling out that saw them sabotage each other’s leadership bids in 2016.
A source in the Hunt campaign urged MPs not to allow the “personal psychodrama” between the pair to play out in the members’ vote.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Javid’s campaign ended after he received just 34 votes. Two ballots were spoiled in the fourth round, and one in the final round, the acting co-chairmen of the backbench 1922 Committee announced.
It is understood Theresa May, who voted by proxy, did not ask for her ballot to be spoilt.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said either candidate would boost the case for Scottish independence.
“The selection of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt is yet another sign that the Tory party is intent on pushing Scotland and the UK towards the Brexit abyss, and increase the prospect of an impending economic disaster,” Mr Blackford said.
“Rather than looking to find a way to end the Brexit impasse, both the Tory candidates are intent on pandering to the Brexit Party as they debate who can deliver the most damaging and destructive version of Brexit.”
Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Andrew Gwynne said the choice was between “the man who broke the NHS or the man who wants to sell it to Donald Trump”.
The final outcome of the leadership contest will not be known until the week beginning 22 July. Postal ballots will be sent to party members between 6 and 8 July.
The first hustings will take place in Birmingham tomorrow, with a further 16 events across the country including a ‘digital hustings’ on 26 June. The candidates will take questions from members in Scotland on 5 July.
ITV announced it will air the first head-to-head debate on 9 July. The BBC are seeking to hold a special Question Time debate with Fiona Bruce and Sky also want a head-to-head hosted by Kay Burley.