Tory leadership race comes down to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt

Michael Gove eliminated by just two votes in fifth and final round of voting

Britain's foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt will face Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership contest after he edged ahead of environment secretary Michael Gove in the fifth ballot of MPs on Thursday. Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt will face Conservative activists in 16 hustings around the country before the party's 160,000 members choose Britain's next prime minister.

Mr Johnson won the support of 160 MPs, more than half the total, with Mr Hunt on 77 and Mr Gove on 75. An earlier ballot on Thursday saw home secretary Sajid Javid eliminated.

"I'm deeply honoured to have secured more than 50 per cent of the vote in the final ballot. Thank you to everyone for your support. I look forward to getting out across the UK and to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country, and create a brighter future for all of us," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Hunt, who trails far behind in polls of party members, acknowledged that Mr Johnson was the favourite but claimed he had a chance of pulling off an upset victory.


“I’m the underdog – but in politics surprises happen as they did today. I do not doubt the responsibility on my shoulders – to show my party how we deliver Brexit and not an election, but also a turbo-charged economy and a country that walks tall in the world,” he said.

Mr Johnson’s supporters denied they had lent votes to Mr Hunt to push Mr Gove out of the race in the final ballot, but hardline Brexiteer Mark Francois welcomed the outcome.

“It means a clean fight. If it had been Michael it would have been a lot more kinetic,” he said.

Mr Gove, whose candidacy stumbled two weeks ago following revelations about his past drug use, said he was disappointed but proud of his campaign.

“Huge thanks to my brilliant campaign team. It’s been an honour to be able to set out a vision for the future of our great country. Many congratulations to Boris and Jeremy,” he said.

The hustings, which start in Birmingham on Saturday, will see each candidate take questions from party members for 45 minutes. Both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have agreed to take part in a debate to be broadcast on ITV on July 9th.

David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, said it was important that the candidates had a “vigorous debate” and should not pull their punches.

“The Tory party is facing some existential political challenges, and the union of the United Kingdom is under greater strain than I have never known it in my lifetime. There are some key constitutional issues, some really key political challenges for the party, and I think it’s really important,” he said.

“The fact that England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain adds to those political tensions. We have to rediscover ways in which people can be both proudly Scottish and proudly British at the same time. I think the union of the UK needs to be a priority that runs through the heart of the next government.”

Labour’s national campaign coordinator Andrew Gwynne said Britain needed a general election, taking aim at Mr Hunt’s record as health secretary and Mr Johnson’s ambition for a free trade deal with the United States.

“What a choice: the man who broke the NHS or the man who wants to sell it to Donald Trump. A handful of unrepresentative Conservative members should not be choosing our next prime minister. People should decide through a general election,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times