The final two candidates to become UK prime minister will be decided Wednesday, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt battling it out with frontrunner Rishi Sunak.
Former finance minister Sunak was only two votes short of securing his place in the final two after Tuesday’s voting, but the race behind him tightened as Truss clawed back five votes to finish only six behind Mordaunt.
The final two will be announced at four pm (1400 GMT), before the race then moves to the party members who will decide the new leader and prime minister. The result will be announced on September 5.
Tuesday’s vote means Britain will get either its first British Asian prime minister or the third female leader in the country’s history.
Sunak, whose resignation helped to topple outgoing leader Boris Johnson, is all but guaranteed to make the final cut.
But Mordaunt — the one-time bookmaker’s favourite — is now the outsider with punters betting that the right wing of the party will swing behind Truss after Kim Badenoch was voted out on Tuesday.
Former minister David Davis, a backer of Mordaunt, accused Sunak of lending votes to Truss in order to face her in the run off.
“Rishi just re-allocated some (votes) … He wants to fight Liz, because she’s the person who will lose the debate with him,” he told LBC Radio.
A YouGov poll published before the vote showed that, despite his popularity with parliamentary colleagues, Sunak was the least appealing candidate to the members.
Mordaunt had headed the same poll previously.
She now trails Truss after a damaging few days in which her former boss, one-time UK Brexit pointman David Frost, slammed her work ethic and questions were raised over her stance on trans rights.
Race gets personal
In a statement after Tuesday’s vote, Mordaunt said: “We are so nearly across the finish line. I am raring to go and excited to put my case to members across the country and win.”
The BBC announced on Tuesday it will host a live televised debate with the final two candidates on Monday, with all remaining candidates agreeing to take part if they get through.
Sky News on Monday scrapped a planned debate between the remaining contenders after Sunak and Truss pulled out.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on July 7 he was quitting as Conservative leader after a government rebellion in protest at his scandal-hit administration.
His government having survived a confidence vote on Monday, Johnson is now almost certain to stay on as prime minister until his successor is announced on September 5.
Under Britain’s parliamentary system, the leader of the biggest party is prime minister and can be changed mid-term without having to call a general election.
Johnson chaired his last Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning and is due to face his last weekly question and answer session with MPs in parliament on Wednesday.
In the two previous televised debates — on Channel 4 Friday and the ITV network Sunday — the contenders clashed notably on whether to cut taxes to help ease a soaring cost of living crisis.
But Sunday’s clash turned more acrimonious — and personal — with candidates encouraged to directly criticise one another and their proposals.
Sunak called out Truss for voting against Brexit, her previous membership of the Liberal Democrats and her position on tax.
In turn, Truss questioned Sunak’s stewardship of the economy.
Badenoch attacked Mordaunt for her stance on transgender rights — a rallying call in the “culture wars” exercising the Tory right.