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Liz Truss was picking up support from the Tory right after Suella Braverman was eliminated from an increasingly bitter leadership race that saw Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt bolster their positions as frontrunners.
Mr Sunak, the former chancellor, came out on top of Thursday’s voting, and in second was Ms Mordaunt, who was bearing the brunt of the attacks from rival camps as she gained the most momentum.
Ms Braverman, the Attorney General, fared the worst in the second round and was eliminated to leave five contenders who will take part in the first televised debate on Friday evening.
She came out in support of Ms Truss, describing the Foreign Secretary as the “best person to unleash the opportunities of Brexit” and deliver tax cuts, as the right of the party seeks to rally round a single candidate.
Taking influential Tory Steve Baker’s vote with her, it was a blow to Kemi Badenoch, who was facing pressure to pull out and back Ms Truss 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.
In a statement, Ms Braverman said: “Liz is the best person to unleash the opportunities of Brexit, and deliver much needed tax cuts.
“I’m confident she will defend free speech, champion equality of opportunity and take a robust line on illegal immigration.”
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 Baker, who had been backing Ms Braverman, told PA: “Suella has my complete loyalty. What she has decided, I will support.”
Mr Tugendhat also dropped five votes but insisted he would not quit the race as the remaining contenders progress to a round of televised debates.
“I have never turned down a challenge because the odds were against me. I don’t plan to start now,” the senior backbencher said.
Ms Mordaunt gained the most votes, adding 16 from Wednesday’s total.
Mr Sunak won 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.
Former Brexit minister Lord Frost, who does not get a vote as a Tory peer, came out in support of Ms Truss, urging Ms Badenoch to pull out of the contest so there can be “unity among free marketeers”.
“Kemi and Suella Braverman set out convincing programmes, with differing emphases, for change. 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.
“It is now time for pragmatism. I urge Kemi to stand down in return for a serious job in a Truss administration.”
He also stepped up his attacks on Ms Mordaunt, saying she was “absent on parade” when he worked with her on post-Brexit negotiations last year.
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 Lord Frost about Ms Mordaunt’s competence.
“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,” he told TalkTV.
“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.”
The former minister’s remarks were highlighted by the Truss campaign, with Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke saying the warning was “a really serious one”.
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.”
Mordaunt supporter George Freeman accused rival campaigns of weaponising trans rights issues because they are “desperate” in the campaign for No 10.
The former minister told BBC Newsnight: “This is beginning to get a rough campaign, it’s a shame. Penny has shocked by breaking through and now people are fighting hard.
“I think it is a real shame to see this issue being weaponised and used as another part of the culture war/division politics which Penny has made very clear she wants to end when she’s prime minister and focus on unity.”
He added: “I think it is a shame – to put it mildly – that David is using this as a chance to fight old battles.”
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.