Conservative leadership contest: Boris Johnson faces Jeremy Hunt in members' ballot

20 June 2019, 20:22 | Updated: 21 June 2019, 00:23

Boris Johnson will go head-to-head with Jeremy Hunt to become the next Conservative Party leader and the UK's new prime minister.

Tory MPs chose them as the final two in the party's leadership contest following the fifth and final parliamentary ballot.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove was eliminated in the race by just two votes on Thursday.

Theresa May's successor in Downing Street will now be decided by around 160,000 Conservative members in a postal ballot, with the result announced in the week beginning 22 July.

Leading Brexiteer Mr Johnson is the clear favourite to be chosen by the Tory grassroots, according to polls.

Mr Hunt backed Remain in the 2016 EU referendum but has since become a supporter of the UK's exit from the EU.

However, Mr Hunt vowed to give Mr Johnson, his predecessor as foreign secretary, the "fight of his life" over the next four weeks, during which they will appear at 16 hustings events for Conservative members in every region of the UK.

This will start in Birmingham on Saturday, with Conservative Party officials revealing they have received more than 20,000 applications in total for the various hustings events.

In a video posted on his Twitter account, Mr Hunt said: "He needs to be ready for that, because we're going to be going out there and making strong arguments that this is the best way to deliver Brexit, with someone who can go and get a better deal from the European Union, and also has so much else to offer our country.

"The entrepreneur who wants to fire up our economy, turbo-charge it and create those jobs that we all need for the future, the foreign secretary who wants us to walk tall in the world, the campaigner who wants our party to appeal to young people, and the social reformer who wants to abolish illiteracy."

The foreign secretary admitted he is the "underdog" in the battle for Number 10, but claimed: "In politics, surprises happen."

Mr Johnson, who secured the votes of 160 MPs in Thursday's final ballot compared to Mr Hunt's 77, described himself as "deeply honoured" to have gained the backing of more than half of Conservative MPs.

"I look forward to getting out across the UK and to set out my plan to deliver Brexit, unite our country, and create a brighter future for all of us," he added on Twitter.

Meanwhile Mr Gove, who was backed by 75 MPs, described himself as "naturally disappointed" but "so proud" of his campaign, which recovered from an early setback - due to his confession of using cocaine when he a journalist - to gather momentum in the latter stages.

"It's been an honour to be able to set out a vision for the future of our great country," Mr Gove added, while also offering his congratulations to Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt.

Mr Gove's elimination in the final ballot of Tory MPs was accompanied by rumours of ballot manipulation by Mr Johnson's camp, with suggestions his team might have lent votes to Mr Hunt in order to keep Mr Gove out of the final two.

Mr Gove, a fellow Brexiteer and Vote Leave campaigner of Mr Johnson's, was viewed by some as a more formidable potential challenger in a head-to-head contest.

Meanwhile, others warned against a repeat of the "psychodrama" of the 2016 Tory leadership campaign when Mr Gove withdrew his support for Mr Johnson to stand as a candidate himself.

Earlier on Thursday, in the fourth ballot of Conservative MPs, Home Secretary Sajid Javid was eliminated from the contest after finishing last with the support of 34 MPs.

Five supporters of Mr Javid subsequently declared their backing for Mr Johnson, but his support only rose by three MPs between the fourth ballot and the fifth ballot to prompt the suggestions of vote-lending.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a supporter of Mr Hunt, joked the contest has seen "more churn than the average washing machine".

However, Mr Gove's key supporters dismissed claims their candidate had been subject to a successful operation by Mr Johnson's team to eliminate their candidate.

Leader of the House of Commons Mel Stride told Sky News: "My gut feeling is no. I don't think anything of that nature, significantly, has happened."

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt have promised to negotiate an improved Brexit deal with the EU, should they become prime minister.

But, at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, the bloc's leaders insisted Mrs May's withdrawal agreement is the only divorce deal on the table.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said: "If they choose Boris Johnson, he will have to deal with us on the agreements we have done with Theresa May."

And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reiterated "the withdrawal agreement is not going to be reopened" but the EU is "willing to consider amendments to the joint political declaration" on the future UK-EU relationship.

Commenting on the Hunt-Johnson run-off, Labour MP Andrew Gwynne - the party's national campaign coordinator - said: "What a choice: the man who broke the NHS or the man who wants to sell it to Donald Trump.

"A handful of unrepresentative Conservative members should not be choosing our next prime minister.

"People should decide through a general election."