Rory Stewart’s insurgent campaign for the Tory leadership has come to an end after he was eliminated in the third round of the contest.
The underdog candidate who has captured the imagination of many with his unorthodox campaign was leapfrogged by Sajid Javid and found himself in last place after the third round of MPs’ votes.
Boris Johnson was again way out in front and looks certain to be one of the two candidates who will face a vote by 160,000 Tory members to choose the next prime minister.
Jeremy Hunt held on to second place and will take on Michael Gove and Javid *for second place* in the last two rounds of MPs’ votes on Thursday as the battle to stop Johnson intensified.
Johnson: 143 votes
After being eliminated, Stewart tweeted: “I am so moved & inspired by the support I have received over the last few weeks – it has given me a new faith in politics, a new belief in our country. I didn’t get enough MPs to believe today – but they will. I remain deeply committed to you and to this country. #RoryWalksOn.”
Stewart, who would not say who he would now back, added that he was looking forward to seeing his two children, aged two and four, adding: “I’ve been getting up at six in the morning and going to bed at two in the morning.”
Stewart’s maverick campaign saw the former Iraq and Afghanistan diplomat engage with the public across the country and attracted hundreds to his rallies.
But after defying the odds to make it this far, his momentum ran out as he was unable to hoover up enough support from backers of Brexiteer Dominic Raab, who was eliminated on Tuesday.
One campaign source suggested a small group of five to ten MPs may have backed Stewart to get him in Tuesday night‘s debate as a disruptor to shake up Johnson and help those battling for second gain ground on the frontrunner.
Another MP also suggested individuals or a small group may have sought to disrupt the contest before the debate to ensure Stewart’s presence.
But both rejected claims the tactical voting could have been orchestrated by any one campaign.
Stewart later told Sky News he was “feeling energised” despite the defeat, adding: “The reality is you never know what MPs get up to in a secret ballot. They clearly decided that they were going to back a winner and they’re going to go in other directions.”
He said he was surprised that he had lost 10 votes, and did not understand why, adding: “But something in the air must have made them sense that something was going in the other direction.”
Meanwhile, one Tory peer leaving parliament’s committee room 14 after the result was read out said: “That’s what comes when you take your tie off.”
Stewart supporter Paul Masterton MP was asked who he would now support.
“I think for me it’s about giving the members a proper contest, that’s why I moved from Matt [Hancock] to Rory,” he said.
“What I don’t want to do is pick someone who’s not got much spark, who’s not going to push Boris. I’ll hear everybody out and then make a judgement.”
Fellow Stewart supporter Gillian Keegan said she felt “Rory had already won” because of the level of support he had gained across the country, adding: “I think this contest is going to be a lot less interesting.”
Stewart could now join Gove’s campaign having admitted the pair had held talks on who would be best placed to challenge Johnson in the members’ run-off.
The international development secretary’s elimination came after a BBC TV debate performance which even he admitted was “lacklustre”, and which many found odd after he removed his tie half way through.
A Hunt campaign spokesman said: “Three times now the party has endorsed Jeremy as the candidate to take on Boris.
“This was a fantastic result that shows the strength of our campaign. We are really encouraged to have finished second again and to have gained so much support.
“If colleagues choose Jeremy, he will put his heart and soul into giving Boris the contest of his life. The stakes are too high to allow anyone to sail through untested.”
A spokesman for Sajid Javid’s team, meanwhile, said they would attempt to gather up some of Stewart’s support.
The source told HuffPost: “Rory fought a great campaign, challenging the party to modernise and to be a broad church. We’re delighted to have the support of more MPs off the back of a strong week and a strong campaign and we’ll be in the ballot tomorrow morning. Saj has a funny habit of defying the odds.”