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Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt have maintained their places at the front of the Tory leadership race as Suella Braverman was eliminated.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss came third on Thursday but hopes to pick up votes from Ms Braverman’s supporters in the next round, as Tories on the right of the party seek to rally round a single candidate.
Ms Braverman, the Attorney General, is understood to be preparing to announce her support for Ms Truss instead of Kemi Badenoch, who is seen as the other right-wing hope to keep Mr Sunak or Ms Mordaunt out of No 10.
Sources close to Ms Braverman told the PA news agency she made the decision after holding talks with Ms Truss.
Mr Sunak picked up 101 votes, Ms Mordaunt 83, Ms Truss 64, Ms Badenoch 49 and Tom Tugendhat 32.
Ms Braverman had 27 votes, five fewer than she had in Wednesday’s first round of the contest despite the field being smaller on Thursday.
Mr Tugendhat also dropped five votes but insisted he would not quit the race, saying: “I have never turned down a challenge because the odds were against me. I don’t plan to start now.”
Ms Mordaunt gained the most votes, putting on 16 from Wednesday’s total.
Mr Sunak put on an extra 13 votes and is closing in on the 120 votes required to guarantee a place in the final two, who will face a vote of the Tory membership to decide the next party leader and prime minister.
Ms Truss, who made a campaign launch speech earlier on Thursday, gained 14 votes but will hope that she can serve as a standard-bearer for the party’s right, picking up supporters from not only Ms Braverman but also Ms Badenoch, who is under pressure from the Foreign Secretary’s allies to pull out of the contest.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Truss supporter, said: “Now is the time for us all to unite behind a candidate who actually has the ability to lead the country as PM.”
Ms Badenoch said she is “disappointed” that Ms Braverman was not backing her, and suggested an offer of a future Cabinet job could have been behind the decision.
“I know people want to support the person that they think is most likely to give them a job, or who has been there the longest, that’s the easy thing to do, the tough thing to do is to take a risk and try something different,” she told LBC radio.
Ms Braverman earlier singled out Ms Mordaunt for criticism, accusing her of failing to stand up for women in her apparent support of trans rights issues and of not being an “authentic Brexiteer”.
“My perception of Penny is she takes a different view to me when it comes to gender ideology and the position of trans, for example I think she said a trans woman is a woman, I disagree with that,” she told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
The attack was the latest in a contest which became increasingly vicious on Thursday, with allies of Ms Truss seizing on comments from former Brexit minister Lord Frost about Ms Mordaunt’s competence.
He told TalkTV: “She was my deputy – notionally, more than really – in the Brexit talks last year.
“I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary in the negotiations last year. She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary.
“She wasn’t fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was. This became such a problem that, after six months, I had to ask the Prime Minister to move her on and find somebody else to support me.”
Allies of Ms Mordaunt said she had “nothing but respect” for Lord Frost despite his scathing attack on her.
A source in the Mordaunt campaign said: “Penny will always fight for Brexit and always has.”
But the former minister’s remarks were highlighted by the Truss campaign, with Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke saying: “Lord Frost’s warning is a really serious one. Conservatives – and far more importantly our country – need a leader who is tested and ready.”
Mr Clarke told Sky News: “It is telling, I think, where current members of the Government are placing their support.
“That is reflected in a number of very senior ministers’ decisions about who to support in this race – they are not backing Ms Mordaunt.”
Former cabinet minister David Davis, a supporter of Ms Mordaunt, criticised the “black ops” being directed at her.
“I wouldn’t describe it as friendly fire,” he said. “It’s absolutely clockwork – you get to the point that somebody gets ahead and looks to be the real challenger and then the black op starts, the incoming fire starts.”
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak insisted his wealth and background in international finance do not bar him from understanding the plight of hard-pressed households.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t judge people by their bank accounts, I judge them by their character, and I think people can judge me by my actions over the past couple of years.”
Mr Sunak defended his economic plan, which would not involve the immediate tax cuts promised by his rivals.
“I will get taxes down in this Parliament, but I’m going to do so responsibly,” he said.
“Because I don’t cut taxes to win elections, I win elections to cut taxes, and I’m convinced that I’m the best person to beat Keir Starmer and the Labour Party at the next election.”
Mr Clarke, who was Mr Sunak’s ministerial deputy in the Treasury, said: “We were all frustrated by some of the choices in terms of tax, obviously those are private discussions in Government when we were bound by collective responsibility.
“But I’m clear I favour a low-tax, pro-enterprise economy and I think Liz Truss has the right approach on that.”
Channel 4 said all five candidates have confirmed they will take part in its debate on Friday night, with further televised clashes scheduled for Sunday and Tuesday.
The next round of voting is due on Monday, with subsequent rounds if required until two candidates are left, who will then battle it out over the summer to win the support of Conservative members. Their choice of the next prime minister will be announced on September 5.
Boris Johnson will then formally tender his resignation to the Queen to make way for his successor the following day.