(Al Jazeera) The United Kingdom’s former finance minister Rishi Sunak has held onto his lead in the race to replace Boris Johnson, as another hopeful was knocked out, leaving four candidates in the increasingly bitter contest.
Sunak got 115 votes in the third ballot of Conservative legislators on Monday, ahead of former defence minister Penny Mordaunt with 82 and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with 71.
Since Johnson said he would resign earlier this month – after his scandal-ridden administration lost the support of many in his ruling Conservative Party – the leadership race has taken an ugly turn with several contenders turning their fire on Sunak, the frontrunner.
He has faced criticism on everything from his record in government to his wife’s wealth by those vying to make it to a runoff between the final two candidates, with Truss and Mordaunt his most likely opponents.
Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier and Johnson critic who has never had a role in government, was eliminated from the leadership contest on Monday, after securing the fewest votes with 31.
Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch came fourth in the vote, with 58 votes.
Attorney General and right-winger Suella Braverman, who was knocked out of the contest last week, had thrown her weight behind Truss.
That endorsement, however, was not enough to push the foreign secretary into second place.
The ballot came after another fraught day of campaigning, despite concerns being expressed publicly about the growing divisions within the party over the contest.
Most notable on Monday was the accusation that Mordaunt missed ministerial meetings because she was plotting her leadership bid.
The junior trade minister’s absence from meetings forced colleagues to pick up the pieces, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan earlier alleged.
In a sign of the concern about the way the leadership race is being conducted, Sunak and Truss confirmed they did not want to take part in a Sky News debate planned for Tuesday – prompting the broadcaster to cancel the show.
“Conservative MPs are said to be concerned about the damage the debates are doing to the image of the Conservative Party, exposing disagreements and splits within the party,” a Sky statement said.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said he was “astonished” by candidates withdrawing from the debate, arguing that it demonstrated a lack of confidence.
“I can see, based on what I’ve seen in the debates so far, why they want to do so because this is a party that is out of ideas, out of purpose, they’re tearing each other apart,” he told reporters at a central London bank.
The governing Conservative Party’s 358 MPs will whittle the field down to the final two this week, staging votes that will eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes each time. The results of the next ballot are due at 14:00 GMT on Tuesday.
The Conservative Party’s 200,000 members will then choose the winner in a postal ballot, with the outcome – and the country’s next prime minister – announced on September 5.