British leadership favourite Boris Johnson won the endorsement of a key Brexit-backing rival on Wednesday despite accusations he was softening his rhetoric on leaving the EU.
Ahead of another round of voting in parliament, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said Johnson was the “only candidate” to take Britain out of the European Union as planned on October 31.
On Tuesday, Raab was eliminated from the contest to replace Theresa May as the leader of the ruling Conservative party and prime minister, leaving five candidates left.
One of them will be eliminated in another ballot of Conservative MPs later Wednesday, before further votes on Thursday to whittle the field down to a final pair.
Former foreign minister Johnson, a one-time mayor of London, is leading the pack after securing the support of 126 of 313 Tory MPs in Tuesday’s ballot.
A figurehead of the 2016 referendum campaign for Brexit, he insists there must be no more delays to Britain’s EU exit, after May postponed it twice.
During a television debate on Tuesday evening, Johnson said further delay would cause a “catastrophic loss of confidence in politics”.
But he declined to guarantee this would happen and one of his main rivals, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, suggested afterwards that his position was not clear.
“I am not entirely sure what he believes on this, having listened to him last night,” Hunt told BBC radio.
Hunt came second in Tuesday’s ballot with 46 votes, followed by Environment Secretary Michael Gove another leader of the 2016 Brexit campaign on 41.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, the only one of the candidates to rule out leaving the EU with no deal, continued his unlikely progress with 37 votes.
Sajid Javid, Britain’s first Muslim interior minister, scraped through with 33 votes the minimum to avoid elimination while Raab fell short with 30.
Raab was viewed as the candidate with the most hardline policy on Brexit, even suggesting he could suspend the session of parliament if it tried to block “no deal”.
Tuesday’s BBC debate was the first of the campaign to feature Johnson, who dodged one on Sunday and has kept his public and media appearances to a minimum.
But none of the candidates made any major headway or gaffes, and Johnson remains the runaway favourite.
After Conservative MPs finish voting, the final pair will be put to a ballot of 160,000 party members, with the winner taking over in Downing Street likely in late July.
May stepped down last month over her failure to deliver Brexit on time, although she remains in Downing Street for now.
She struck an exit deal with Brussels last November, but failed three times to get it through parliament’s lower House of Commons.
All the candidates except Stewart insist they can renegotiate the text with the EU despite repeated warnings from Brussels that it will not do this.
Stewart wants to try again to get the deal agreed with Brussels through parliament, but the others warn that without a change, Britain must be ready to leave with no deal at all.
But Johnson said in Tuesday’s debate: “None of us wants a no-deal outcome.
“We are going to make sure we come out on terms that protect the UK and protect the EU as well.”
Both Hunt and Gove repeated that a further delay might be required if a Brexit deal was within reach.
But Javid said it was “fundamental” to get out by the new deadline no matter what.