Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt kept their rival Liz Truss at arm's length in a second round of Tory leadership balloting on Thursday, with Suella Braverman knocked out of the race to be Britain's next prime minister.
Ms Mordaunt's bid to be Britain's third female leader continued to gather momentum as she made the biggest second-round gains, despite a stinging swipe at her credentials from senior Brexiteer Lord Frost and a first major campaign speech by Ms Truss on Thursday.
Former chancellor Mr Sunak remained at the front of the pack with 101 votes, bringing him within sight of the threshold of 120 that will guarantee entry to the final-round vote.
“We are building good, solid momentum,” said Mark Harper, a former chief whip who is part of Mr Sunak’s campaign. “The next round is by far going to the be most important."
With Ms Mordaunt second on 83, Ms Truss, the foreign secretary, has some work to do from her third-place position on 64 - although she will hope to pick up much of Ms Braverman's pro-Brexit support.
Ms Truss used her launch speech to emphasise her cabinet experience compared to the relatively unknown Ms Mordaunt and promise to build an economically stronger "aspiration nation".
But supporters of Ms Mordaunt celebrated the result after she gained 16 new supporters, increasing her lead over Ms Truss. If she does make it to the final pair, polls show her as favourite to win the contest among the 200,000 Conservative members.
Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was fourth in Thursday's ballot with 49, while backbench MP Tom Tugendhat is the fifth and final contender still standing after winning 32 votes.
The remaining five contenders will now face a testing bout of three television debates starting with a Channel 4 programme on Friday, with Mr Tugendhat insisting he will stay in the race despite shedding five votes from the first round.
Outsiders Ms Badenoch and Ms Tugendhat will have little to lose from what will be a stiff examination of the three leading contenders, which will come amid an increasingly bitter briefing war between the candidates.
“The campaign for a clean start continues … I will be putting my vision for Britain forward to the public at the TV debates next week,” Mr Tugendhat said.
Ms Braverman, the attorney general, who had positioned herself as a hardline Brexiteer, was eliminated after winning just 27 votes.
Supporters of Jeremy Hunt and Nadhim Zahawi, the two candidates eliminated in Wednesday's first round, appeared to scatter across the field, with allies of Ms Truss arguing that there was little to gain for their candidate from those camps.
While the Braverman and Badenoch blocs are seen as opportunities for Ms Truss to consolidate the Tory right, the 32 votes carried by Mr Tugendhat are more likely to favour Ms Mordaunt if he is eliminated.
Unless anyone drops out, three more votes will be needed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to cut the field down to two. Conservative Party members will then be asked to choose between the two finalists.
There are 358 Tory MPs and the threshold to enter the final round is effectively 120, since it would be mathematically impossible for someone with that many votes to have two opponents in front of them.
The five remaining candidates face a frenetic weekend with three separate televised debates and an increasingly bitter briefing war within the party, despite appeals from MPs to keep things civil.
Speaking after the result was announced, Ms Braverman declined to say who she would back in the Tory leadership contest after she was eliminated from the race – but chose to criticise Ms Mordaunt.
She indicated she would back the candidate who will “stop illegal migration across the Channel”, and deliver “Brexit opportunities”, a “tough line on identity politics” and tax cuts.
Asked about criticisms of Ms Mordaunt, Ms Braverman said: “I disagree with Penny on some key issues, in relation to one specific matter, the maternity Bill that was passed for my benefit when I had my baby last year.
“Penny Mordaunt ... did oppose and did resist the inclusion of the word woman and the word mother and did only concede after unsustainable pressure from the House of Lords.
“I was quite disappointed by the way in which it was handled and the responsible minister I’m afraid didn’t stand up for women.”
Ms Mordaunt was also hit by a remarkable verbal missile on Wednesday from former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, who said she was so ineffective as a member of his team that he had to ask Prime Minister Boris Johnson to remove her.
“I'm quite surprised that she is where she is in this leadership race,” Lord Frost told Talk TV. “I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary in the negotiations.”
At her launch event, Ms Truss said she would not attack her rival directly but pointedly talked up her own experience in senior cabinet roles, in a thinly-veiled contrast with the relatively unknown Ms Mordaunt.
Ms Truss pitched herself as a candidate ready to “hit the ground running” as prime minister and oversee tax cuts and economic reforms to lift Britain's economy out of a high-price malaise.
She said she had stayed in the cabinet out of loyalty to the departing Mr Johnson but told supporters and journalists she had privately opposed a tax increase that took effect in April.
Mr Sunak meanwhile rejected the suggestion that his considerable personal wealth and background as a banker would make him a poor fit for a country struggling with soaring bills.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the furlough scheme he oversaw as chancellor was an example of him standing up for less wealthy people.
“I don’t judge people by their bank accounts, I judge them by their character, and I think people can judge me by my actions over the past couple of years,” she said.
Mr Tugendhat said rival candidates were trying to lure him into their camp but that he would not withdraw from the race because some MPs might change their minds.
The former soldier, the only candidate still standing who did not serve in any ministerial role under Mr Johnson, said he was “untainted by the last two years” of scandal surrounding the government.
Mr Johnson, who bowed to a cabinet mutiny and announced his resignation last Thursday, is expected to leave Downing Street the day after the new Tory leader is chosen, meaning the new prime minister will take office on September 6.