Jeremy Hunt backs Rishi Sunak after being knocked out of Tory leadership race

ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt reports on the latest developments in the Tory leadership race, with Penny Mordaunt quickly catching up to current frontrunner Rishi Sunak

Jeremy Hunt has confirmed he is backing Rishi Sunak after being knocked out of the Tory leadership contest himself.

The ex-health secretary, who failed to garner enough support from fellow Tories to make it through Wednesday’s first round of voting, said he would be "proud" to see the former chancellor become prime minister.

He said in a statement that there were two reasons behind his backing - his character and his "formidable ability" to take on the country's increasingly tumultuous economy.

“First of all, the big challenge we face now is economic, and this is someone of formidable ability, who has been thinking about the right thing to do for our economy, for families up and down the country, very hard over the last two years," he said.

“But in the end it’s not about policy. I’ve been around long enough to know that politics is really about character and Rishi is one of the most decent, straight people with the highest standards of integrity that I have ever met in British politics and that’s why I would be proud to have him as my next prime minister.”

His backing came after he and Nadhim Zahawi were eliminated from the race to Number 10 after both failed to gain the support of 30 MPs to reach the next round.

Mr Hunt got just 18 and Chancellor Zahawi got 25, leaving just six PM hopefuls left in the running.

Who is through to the next round and how many votes did they get?

Mr Sunak, whose resignation from No 11 helped trigger the Tory leadership race, topped the ballot, with trade minister Penny Mordaunt ahead of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Senior backbencher Tom Tugendhat, Attorney General Suella Braverman and former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch also progressed to the final six candidates.

Earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also announced that he was abandoning his bid and would be supporting Mr Sunak, while Health Secretary Steve Barclay went public with his support for Mr Sunak in a tweet early on Wednesday, writing he was “convinced” that Mr Sunak had “all the right attributes to take our country forward”.

The first round of voting came after Downing Street was forced to deny running a “stop Sunak” smear campaign as the battle grew increasingly bitter.

The caretaker Prime Minister’s press secretary insisted that Mr Johnson is “staying neutral” despite his remaining arch-loyalists throwing their support behind Ms Truss.

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Two of them, Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg, announced their backing and stepped up their public criticism of Mr Sunak after leaving Mr Johnson’s Cabinet meeting.

Ms Dorries, the Culture Secretary, accused the former chancellor’s campaign of deploying “dirty tricks” to benefit his campaign and backed Ms Truss as the Brexiteers’ candidate.

Brexit opportunities minister Mr Rees-Mogg accused Mr Sunak of having implemented “economically damaging” policies.

Asked if No 10 is involved in an anti-Sunak operation as the first round of voting loomed, Mr Johnson’s press secretary bluntly said: “No.”

She declined to say whether Downing Street remains supportive of the former chancellor, whose resignation helped end Mr Johnson’s grip on No 10.

What happens next in the leadership?

Tory MPs will be balloted again tomorrow and the candidate with the fewest nominations will be eliminated from the race.

Those remaining after that will face a series of TV debates over the weekend, with Channel 4's offering coming at 7pm on Friday, ITV's at 7pm on Sunday and Sky's at 7pm on Monday.

There will also be three hustings on Monday, giving Tory MPs another chance to assess who they want to be the next prime minister.

The following rounds of ballots will be conducted rapidly in order to whittle the candidates down to a final two by the final day of voting on Wednesday, July 20.

From Thursday, July 21, the two finalists will tour the country after MPs break up for summer recess, in a bid to win support from Tory party members.

Voting cards will be sent to the 200,000 Tory members over the summer and the deadline for them to be complete will be late August.

The winner will be announced on September 5 and Boris Johnson will leave 10 Downing Street on September 6, Number 10 said.