A final vote of Conservative members of parliament on Wednesday will select the two candidates to be put to the party’s membership in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt are battling to win over Kemi Badenoch’s supporters after she was knocked out of the contest, for an opportunity to face frontrunner Rishi Sunak in the run-off.
Foreign Secretary Truss received a surge in support in the penultimate ballot, putting her within touching distance of Mordaunt as the right of the party appears to be coalescing around her.
The momentum of her latest result now puts her favourite to face Sunak in the head-to-head competition to win a ballot of Conservative members, with that result being announced on Sept. 5.
Truss picked up 15 votes to command the support of 86 Tory MPs on Tuesday after 31 votes were freed up by the elimination of Tom Tugendhat a day earlier.
Ms Mordaunt increased her share by 10 to sit on 92, while Mr Sunak gained an extra three votes to put him in 118, just shy of the number effectively guaranteeing him entry to the final phase.
Badenoch came last in the ballot on 59 votes, with Truss believed to be more likely to pick up a significant number of those votes than Mordaunt.
The rival campaigns accused one another of transferring votes in a bid to boost their positions, with David Davis, a backer of Mordaunt, saying it was the “dirtiest campaign” he had ever seen.
“Rishi just reallocated some … He wants to fight Liz because she’s the person who will lose the debate with him,” the former Cabinet minister told LBC Radio.
Sunak, the former chancellor, received a blow in the latest limited polling of the party membership, which forecasts he would lose against both of his remaining rivals in the run-off.
Mordaunt, the trade minister, said: “We are so nearly across the finish line. I am raring to go and excited to put my case to members across the country and win.”
She thanked Badenoch, the former equalities minister, and praised her “fresh thinking and bold policies” in a possible pitch to begin winning over her now-floating voters.
Mordaunt said the Tory brand had “not been helped by some of the TV formats” as she called for “some positivity and some professionalism” to be restored to the often bitter race.
Truss, who is being backed by Boris Johnson’s most loyal allies, insisted the party’s reputation is “in a positive place.”
Sunak’s campaign focused on polls showing that he could beat Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and “is the candidate the public think would make the best PM.”
Who the Tory membership favours are hard to judge because of the low levels of participation in existing polling.
But a YouGov survey of 725 party members over Monday and Tuesday saw Sunak losing against all of his remaining rivals by large margins.
The survey put Truss beating Sunak by 54 to 35 and Mordaunt beating him 51 to 37.
Mordaunt, who had been put ahead in recent weeks, was losing to both Truss and Badenoch in head-to-heads by narrow margins.
The current size of the Conservative membership is unknown, but at the last leadership election in 2019 there were around 160,000 members, and insiders expect it to have grown, meaning the polling is not representative of the party.
A spokesperson for the Truss campaign said: “Now is the time for the party to unite behind a candidate who will govern in a Conservative way and who has shown she can deliver time and again.”