Nigerian-born Kemi Badenoch has been eliminated from the Conservative leadership race, setting up a battle between Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss to join Rishi Sunak in the last round.
Sunak, the former chancellor and the frontrunner, won 118 MPs’ votes, just 2 short of the 120 needed to guarantee a spot in the next stage of the process.
Badenoch, a former levelling up minister, came fourth on 59 votes, exiting the contest to replace Boris Johnson. Mordaunt, an international trade minister, won 92 MPs’ votes, while Truss, the foreign secretary, won 86.
A last MPs’ vote on Wednesday will decide which two candidates will go to a ballot of Conservative party members, with the final result due on 5 September. Whoever wins will become prime minister.
Truss has narrowed the gap on Mordaunt, who appeared to capture the imagination of party members in the early stages of the contest but has lost some momentum in recent days, amid a barrage of hostile briefing about issues including her view on trans rights.
Mordaunt was up 10 votes from Tuesday but Truss’s team hope to win over many of Badenoch’s supporters, potentially allowing her to move into second place in Wednesday’s ballot.
A Sunak-supporting MP denied the former chancellor’s camp would be disappointed at having not reached the 120-vote threshold on Tuesday.
“Every ballot we’ve gone in the right direction, so we need to make those arguments now with the 59 colleagues who voted for Kemi,” they said.
Steve Baker, a strong supporter of Badenoch, said he believed the MPs who voted for the now-ousted former minister would want to “take stock for a couple of hours” before deciding who to back in Wednesday’s fifth and final voting round.
He added: “But I would have thought that most of the people who are attracted to Kemi, they’ll mostly not be attracted to Penny. So obviously I’m hopeful that Liz will be able to attract their support. But one must never take anything for granted.”
Baker said he did not believe any campaign was trying to skew the result by lending out blocks of votes as a way of eliminating other candidates while stressing that MPs were “a sophisticated electorate” and some could vote tactically on an individual basis.
Badenoch, who has never held a cabinet post, styled herself as a straight-talking reformer and won the support of Michael Gove, who was sacked by Johnson as he fought to save his collapsing government.
By making it to the final four she is likely to have secured a senior role in the government of the new prime minister, whoever wins.
The past 24 hours have brought a flurry of policies from the remaining candidates, with Mordaunt promising to scrap housing targets and press ahead with Johnson’s project of levelling up, and Truss pledging to boost defence spending to 3% of GDP.
Sunak meanwhile claimed he was the only candidate who could save the UK, promising to rule out a Scottish independence referendum and attack Labour over claims it could form a coalition with the Scottish National party.
Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee who announced the results of the poll, said one Conservative MP had spoiled their ballot paper and another had not voted.