Matt Hancock has pulled out of the Tory leadership race, leaving six contenders battling to be Britain’s Prime Minister.
The health secretary came 6th in the first ballot of Tory MPs yesterday with 20 votes.
It was highly unlikely Mr Hancock would have made it through the second round of voting as candidates need to poll 33 votes to stay in contention.
Mr Hancock is yet to throw his support behind another candidate, and didn’t rule out backing runaway favourite Boris Johnson in an interview with the Evening Standard.
Announcing his decision Mr Hancock said: “I’m hugely grateful for the warm and enthusiastic support I’ve received throughout this campaign, and am proud of the way we managed to set the agenda by promoting new ideas to make people’s lives better.
“I ran as the candidate of the future, but the Party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique set of circumstances we face right now.
“I have therefore decided to withdraw from this contest, and I will look for the best way to advance the values we fought for, of free enterprise, and an open, aspirational and free society, underpinned by an optimistic belief in the value of each individual person.
“I will talk to all the other candidates about how these values can be best taken forwards.”
Three candidates were knocked out of the race yesterday, meaning 50 votes are now up for grabs.
Shortly after Mr Hancock withdrew, frontrunner Boris Johnson caved to pressure from Tory leadership hopefuls and agreed to take part in TV debates on Channel 4 and the BBC.
The remaining wannabe Prime Ministers - Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Rory Stewart and Jeremy Hunt - piled in on Mr Johnson to pressure him into joining them in the debates.
In a joint statement they said: “This leadership contest provides an important opportunity to debate, to shape and to define the ideas which will underpin those competing visions. That is why we are committed to taking part in the Channel 4 televised debates this Sunday and the BBC programme next Tuesday.”
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Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is currently in second place in the leadership race, accused Mr Johnson of hiding from scrutiny.
He told the BBC: “We can only have that debate if our front-runner in this campaign is a little bit braver in terms of getting out into the media and actually engaging in debates. Engaging in the TV debates.”
Johnson’s campaign said it was “in discussions” with broadcasters about whether he would attend.
The pressure to take part forms part of the attempt to halt the momentum of Johnson, who yesterday picked up 114 MPs votes in the first round of the election, enough to see him safely through to the final stage when party members have their say on the last two candidates.
Johnson’s campaign so far has been a highly slick and stage-managed affair, during which he has granted only one newspaper interview and answered only six questions from journalists.
— Mirror Chicken (@MirrorChicken) June 14, 2019
In a sign that this control was beginning to slip, on Friday morning the Daily Mirror dug out their chicken suit which has been used to challenge politicians over the years over their cowardice to take part in debates and on other issues.
Some in the party are concerned that if the next leader of the party is elected without enough scrutiny then the Tories could find themselves in the same situation they were after Theresa May’s coronation in 2016.
A source from Rory Stewart’s campaign told the Press Association that the new leader must demonstrate they can “win back old voters and win over new audiences”.
“Any candidate who seeks that mantle can hardly opt out of a public debate,” he said. “If any candidate ducks that duty, there is a simple question we should ask: ‘What have you got to hide?’”
Dominic Raab – who will be targeting MPs seeking hard Brexit votes like Johnson – said: “I’m looking forward to the first televised debates on Sunday and I hope that everyone gets involved – we should have a proper debate on the vision for the country.”
Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary who is supporting Hunt, told Johnson it was his duty to “get out and do the TV debates”.
In September 2018, @BorisJohnson told @SkyNews he believed leaders' debates were "essential".
Mr Johnson hasn't stated whether he intends to take part in televised hustings for the current Tory leadership contest, but is under growing pressure to do so https://t.co/UvjeODKy0p pic.twitter.com/xas3S1YG5V
— Sky News (@SkyNews) June 14, 2019
And on Friday morning, Sky News dug out footage of Johnson endorsing the channel’s long-running campaign to make debates a centrepiece of British elections. Johnson told the news channel that “my feeling is that they are essential and the public does need to see interchange between their potential leaders.”