Boris Johnson today took another step closer to 10 Downing Street with an emphatic victory in the fourth round of MPs' votes at Westminster, as home secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated from the contest.
Mr Johnson's tally of 157 votes was more than all of his four rivals combined, meaning he now has the support of more than half of the party's 313 MPs at Westminster.
In a dramatic boost for Michael Gove, the environment secretary leapfrogged Jeremy Hunt into second place by a bare two votes, edging ahead of the foreign secretary with 61 votes to Mr Hunt's 59.
The Gove and Hunt camps were hitting the phones within minutes of the result to court the 34 supporters of home secretary Mr Javid, who was eliminated as lowest-placed candidate.
Their neck-and-neck result sets up a knife-edge battle to join Mr Johnson on the ballot paper for the members' vote which will decide the successor to Theresa May as prime minister.
A final round of MPs' voting on Thursday afternoon will whittle the surviving trio down to a shortlist of two from which the 160,000 members will choose a new leader in a postal ballot next month.
Many in Westminster believe Mr Johnson would rather face the formerly Remain-backing Mr Hunt in the members' ballot than Mr Gove, who lead the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU campaign and then sabotaged the former London mayor's leadership bid by pulling out of his campaign team to stake his own claim.
There were rumours that - dismissed as "nonsense" by the Johnson camp - that his campaign supremo Gavin Williamson may be urging a number of his supporters to "lend" their votes to Mr Hunt to restore his second place in this afternoon's vote.
One source in the Hunt camp suggested it was important not to present the membership with a personal grudge match between the Brexit figureheads, but a clear choice between different approaches to EU withdrawal.
"Jeremy is the best candidate to take on Boris Johnson in the final two and give the party a real choice," the source told The Independent. "Boris and Michael are great candidates but we have seen their personal psychodrama before - it's time to offer the country someone the EU will actually talk to," said the source.
Mr Gove said: "Absolutely delighted to come second in the latest ballot. It's all to play for in the final ballot this afternoon. If I make the final two I look forward to having a civilised debate of ideas about the future of our country."
Mr Javid declined to endorse a candidate in the fifth-round vote, but it is thought that many of his backers will now fall in behind Mr Johnson, the only other candidate to promise to deliver Brexit by 31 October come what may.
The former foreign secretary tweeted: "Delighted to have the support of over half of all Conservative MPs in the fourth ballot. I am incredibly grateful, but we have much more work to do."
The results were announced in a Commons committee room by acting co-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Dame Cheryl Gillan.
She revealed that, for the first time in the four rounds of MPs' voting, two of the 313 ballot papers were spoilt, possibly reflecting some MPs' unwillingness to back a candidate who would not rule out a no-deal Brexit. The last contender to do so, Rory Stewart, was eliminated on Wednesday.
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