Boris Johnson is all but guaranteed to make it to the final two of the Conservative leadership contest after securing a stunning 114 votes in the first round of MPs’ votes.
Johnson was widely expected to top the poll, but even his allies did not expect him to win by such a margin. He is now the overwhelming favourite to become the next UK prime minister.
Jeremy Hunt came in second place with 43 votes, and Michael Gove was third with 37 MP supporters.
Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper, and Esther McVey have been eliminated from the race after failing to meet the threshold of 17 MPs needed to stay in.
There were disappointing results for Dominic Raab, who managed just 27 votes, as well as for Sajid Javid, with 23 votes, and Matt Hancock, with just 20 votes. These three candidates are now under significant pressure from MPs to withdraw from the contest and endorse one of the three major candidates. All three insisted they would stay in the race.
Rory Stewart confounded expectations and won 19 votes, securing his place in the next round.
Johnson’s camp said he succeeded in picking up the most support from both Brexiteers and Remainers and had the best “ratio” of Leave-Remain support of any of the candidates, despite his rivals’ claims that he is the most divisive potential leader.
Gove performed considerably worse than expected in the first round. Two weeks ago, he was seen as the candidate most likely to come second, but he managed to secure only around a third of the votes won by Johnson and is now third behind Hunt. Hunt is the favourite to join Johnson on the ballot.
MPs who spoke to BuzzFeed News ahead of the vote said that Gove’s issues with newspaper stories about his past drug use are only part of the reason that he underperformed.
Several MPs said they felt sympathy for the environment secretary over his “coke shame” headlines but commented that the personal attacks he has launched on the other candidates have gone down badly and have left even his supporters unimpressed.
Speaking at his launch, Gove make a joke about Johnson “pulling out”, widely construed as a reference to his private life. “It was undignified and hardly unifying,” one MP told BuzzFeed News.
The Raab campaign is also struggling badly after weeks of stories about his record on women. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed News reported that Raab was refusing to lift a historic nondisclosure agreement that he had with a woman who is a former colleague.
Three weeks ago, allies of the former Brexit secretary were claiming that he could beat Johnson on the first ballot. Then they briefed that Johnson would need to be 20 votes ahead of Raab in the first round if he wanted to remain ahead in the later stages. Today Johnson received 87 more votes than Raab.
Attention will quickly shift to the battle for MPs’ second preferences over the coming days.
Raab and Hancock are already under pressure to withdraw from the race and endorse other candidates. With little chance of either candidate making the final two, the MPs who have publicly backed them are said to want to be free to endorse one of the frontrunners.
Johnson’s camp believes that Raab’s supporters will largely switch over to him as the principal Brexiteer candidate.
Hancock is being told by MPs to fold in behind either Hunt or Javid this weekend.
It is expected that Hancock, Gove, Javid, and Hunt will ultimately endorse whichever of the four is most likely to make it to the final two. While some of their MPs will swing in behind Johnson, most of their backers are expected to support the final candidate from the Remain side of the draw.
That means it is possible Johnson will not top the final ballot, with the candidate from the Remain side of the Tory party potentially able to win the most support from MPs before the final choice is put to the members to decide.