Rishi Sunak has built a strong lead in the in the third round of voting in the Tory leadership contest, with Tom Tugendhat dropping out.
Sunak got 115 votes from Tory MPs, followed by Penny Mordaunt on 82, Liz Truss on 71, Kemi Badenoch on 58 and Tugendhat on 31.
The vote saw Sunak, Truss and Badenoch all increase their vote totals, while Mordaunt went backwards by one vote in what appears to be a confirmation the trade minister is losing momentum in the race.
It comes after two bruising debates over the past few days, which saw candidates viciously attack each other from all angles.
Sunak won plaudits for his two debate performances, which saw him decry the promised tax cuts of rivals as “fantasy economics”.
The ex-chancellor has said that it is not the time to slash taxes as it would further stoke the UK’s 40-year high inflation, however the other candidates are promising tens of billions of pounds of tax relief.
A Sunak spokesperson said: “Rishi has done well today because he is the candidate with the clearest plan to restore trust, rebuild the economy, reunite the country and because he is best placed to beat Labour at the next election.”
There will be a vote tomorrow and another on Wednesday to decide the final two candidates, who will face off in a six-week campaign to win the votes of the party’s 200,000 members.
Truss is in second place with bookmakers to become next Prime Minister, but she is vying with Badenoch for the votes of the right of the party and still trails Mordaunt.
Truss has pitched her campaign around promises of low-tax, Thatcherite economics and hawkish foreign policy.
Senior Tory and Truss supporter Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “Momentum is critical, you have to have that and Liz has got momentum.
“Yes Kemi got votes as well and she’s got some momentum, but the key test now is who is in third place – that is Liz Truss. It’s a very important place to be in this contest and Penny is stalling. This is still open and I believe Liz is in the right place to do this.”
A minister supporting Truss told City A.M. that the foreign secretary “erred on the side of caution” during the first debate, but that she “lifted to the occasion when the heat was on in yesterday’s debate and she made a lot of MPs sit up and listen”.
“We need someone who can hit the ground running and Liz has proven she can do that,” they said.
Mordaunt shot into favouritism with bookmakers to be the next PM last week after strong finishes in early voting rounds and polling showing she was the preferred candidate of Tory members.
However, two poor debate showings has dented her momentum.
A series of Mordaunt’s former bosses have also come out in previous days to question her work ethic.
This includes her current boss, international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who today told LBC that she had consistently “gone missing” over the past six months.
Mordaunt supporter George Freeman complained that “nobody has been attacked as savagely in the past few days” as the junior trade minister.
The remaining candidates will now fight it out to try and pick up Tugendhat’s endorsement for tomorrow’s vote, with Sunak and Mordaunt likely to pick up most of his supporters.
Truss and Badenoch are also in a close fought battle to see who will make the final three and become the standard-bearer of the Tory party’s right faction.