Foreign secretary gains support from a defeated candidate as another rival is urged to step down.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s chances of becoming the next Tory leader have been boosted after she was endorsed by eliminated contender Suella Braverman.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak came first in the latest round of voting, with Penny Mordaunt second and Ms Truss third.
Ms Braverman then endorsed Ms Truss as the party’s right-wing seeks to rally around a single candidate.
Former Brexit Minister Lord Frost is now urging one of the other contenders, Kemi Badenoch, to step down.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Frost endorsed the foreign secretary’s candidacy and suggested former equalities minister Ms Badenoch should pull out of the race “in return for a serious job in a Truss administration”.
“We need unity among free marketeers. Kemi and Suella Braverman set out convincing programmes, with differing emphases, for change,” Lord Frost said.
“But Liz’s depth of experience, her energy and ideas – as well as the simple fact she has the most votes of the three – put her in the lead.”
However, Ms Badenoch’s campaign said she “has no intention of stepping down and is in it to win”.
A spokesman for the MP said she had brought “interesting ideas and a new approach to the contest”.
Tom Tugendhat is the other candidate still in the race.
The five candidates will take part in televised debates on Friday on Channel 4, Sunday on ITV, and Tuesday on Sky.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker has also backed Ms Truss, and the BBC understands most of the 27 Tory MPs who voted for Ms Braverman in round two are expected to do the same.
Ms Braverman had styled herself as the only “authentic” Brexiteer candidate in contention, pointing to her resignation as a Brexit minister under Theresa May over the former prime minister’s deal.
Ms Braverman told the BBC that Ms Truss was the best candidate to deliver upon “our Brexit promises”, and would take a “firm line” on illegal migration, freedom of speech and cutting taxes.
Mr Sunak is still in pole position after winning 101 votes in Thursday’s ballot, followed by trade minister Ms Mordaunt, who gained the most momentum with 83 votes.
Ms Truss secured 64 votes.
Like Ms Badenoch, who came fourth with 49 votes, foreign affairs committee chairman Tom Tugendhat – fifth on 32 – said he is determined to stay in the contest.
The next round of voting, when the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, takes place on Monday.
Tory MPs are aiming to whittle down the field to two by the end of next week, when it will be thrown over to a postal ballot of Tory members to choose the winner, who will become prime minister.
The result will be announced on 5 September, when Boris Johnson will leave office.
Welcome backing for Truss
Suella Braverman’s backing will be welcome news for Liz Truss.
Of course, it doesn’t guarantee that all of her 26 backers will follow her lead.
But there have been calls for the right to unite behind one candidate and this will further the case for that candidate to be Liz Truss.
Ms Braverman had described herself as the only “authentic Brexiteer” in the contest (despite Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Rishi Sunak all backing Leave).
The fact that she has chosen Ms Truss, who campaigned for Remain, will further shore up the foreign secretary’s credentials among eurosceptics.
Mr Sunak has now topped the first two ballots of MPs, with other candidates scrambling to join him in the final run-off.
His decision to quit as chancellor last week was one of the first in a wave of ministerial resignations that forced Mr Johnson to stand down as Tory leader.
Allies of Mr Johnson have accused Mr Sunak of orchestrating the prime minister’s downfall and have been fiercely critical of tax hikes he introduced as chancellor.
A member of Mr Sunak’s team said the former chancellor would “keep going with solid messaging on the economic agenda”, claiming other candidates had backed away from their pledges.
Following Thursday’s vote, Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland became the latest senior Tory MP to back Mr Sunak, telling Talk TV he was the best person to deal with the economic challenges facing the country.
Conservative leadership timetable
Monday 18 July – date for third round of voting
Tuesday 19 July – date of fourth round of voting
Wednesday 20 July – date of fifth round of voting
Thursday 21 July – deadline for deciding final two candidates
Monday 5 September – winner announced
Ms Truss’s team said Thursday’s result showed the foreign secretary was “attracting a wide range of supporters from across the Conservative Party”.
A spokesperson for Ms Truss said: “Now is the time for MPs to unite behind the candidate who will cut taxes, deliver the real economic change we need, continue to deliver the benefits of Brexit and ensure Putin loses in Ukraine”.
Launching her campaign earlier, Mr Truss pledged to boost the economy through tax cuts and said she was “ready to be prime minister from day one”.
Earlier, a senior member of Ms Truss’s campaign urged backers of Ms Badenoch and Ms Braverman to “recognise the reality of the situation” and unite behind the foreign secretary.
But a campaign source for Ms Badenoch said she was “happy” with the result, given “this time last week she hadn’t decided if she was running”.
“Now is the time for change and I am looking forward to continuing to make that case in the TV debates,” Ms Badenoch wrote in a tweet.
She said she was “disappointed” that Ms Braverman had backed Ms Truss, telling LBC “the tough thing to do is to take a risk and try something different”.
There had been speculation that Mr Tugendhat might drop out of the contest. But in a tweet, he said he would stay and take part in the upcoming TV debates to put his “vision for Britain forward to the public”.
The backbencher, who won five fewer votes in the second round than in the first, said his campaign for “a clean start” continued, adding: “We need trust back in our politics.”