Boris Johnson has cruised to victory in the second round of voting for the Conservative party leadership, but Rory Stewart has emerged as his most potent rival as other candidates to succeed Theresa May as UK prime minister stalled.
Mr Johnson won the second round of the contest with the backing of 126 out of 313 Tory MPs, while Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary who was prepared to suspend parliament to deliver a no-deal exit, dropped out after finishing last with 30 votes.
However, the vote confirmed that Mr Stewart, the international development secretary, has the most momentum after he qualified for Wednesday’s next round with 37 votes, almost doubling his tally from 19 in the first round.
His surge highlights the divisiveness of Brexit within the Tory party, with Mr Stewart ruling out leaving the EU without a deal and Mr Johnson calling on the government to ramp up preparations for such an event.
The two men will be joined in the next round of the contest by Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary who scored 46 votes, up just three votes on the first round, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary who polled 41, up four.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, scraped through with 33 votes. His team scotched suggestions that Mr Javid might call it a day and back Mr Johnson. “He has every intention of going into the next round,” said one ally.
All five were taking part in a BBC televised debate on Tuesday evening with Mr Johnson likely to face fierce scrutiny from his rivals. The frontrunner refused to take part in a similar debate on Channel 4 on Sunday and has dodged broadcast media interviews.
Further voting by MPs on Thursday will whittle down the field to a two-man shortlist to be presented to the party’s 160,000 members. A result is scheduled to be declared in the week starting July 22.
While Mr Johnson’s dominance in the poll was expected, Mr Stewart’s quirky and energetic campaigning style won him support.
He now hopes to overtake Mr Gove and Mr Hunt to reach the shortlist. “He’s the candidate that other candidates fear,” justice secretary David Gauke, one of Stewart’s earliest backers, said in an interview.
Mr Johnson only added 12 votes to his 114 tally in the first round; some 187 Tory MPs are still backing other candidates, suggesting that the contest is not yet in the bag for the former foreign secretary.
Mr Stewart, who says Britain cannot expect to get a better deal from Brussels than Mrs May has negotiated, would not be an obvious choice for the largely Eurosceptic Tory membership if he made the final shortlist.
But Tory MPs have been impressed by his vibrant campaign. Mr Stewart, who spent much of Tuesday outside the House of Commons committee room where voting took place, said he was “honoured and surprised” by the result.
Explaining his face-to-face approach to winning votes, he told journalists this week: “I have to stare at literally every single one of them in the eye and look into their souls” as they vote “and say ‘be brave.’” Asked if he trusted his fellow MPs, Mr Stewart replied: “In the voting lobbies? Nah.”
There were reports that Mr Johnson’s allies, confident of victory, were “lending” the votes of supportive MPs to Mr Hunt on the basis that they would prefer to fight the smooth foreign secretary in the final ballot than the less predictable Mr Stewart.
That was denied by the Johnson camp and Mr Hunt’s team claimed the rumour was being put about by Mr Gove’s supporters to discredit the foreign secretary.
Mr Stewart came under attack on Tuesday amid fears among his rivals that he was gaining ground. The Daily Telegraph, which employs Mr Johnson as a columnist, led its front page on the “mystery” of whether Mr Stewart used to work for MI6, the UK overseas intelligence agency.