Esther McVey, former Conservative leadership contender, has thrown her support behind Boris Johnson’s campaign to become Britain’s next prime minister, giving a further boost to the runaway favourite.
Mr Johnson was given a further lift in an opinion poll which showed he was the most likely candidate to persuade people to vote Tory, although he also remains highly divisive.
The former foreign secretary is refusing to take part in a TV leadership debate on Channel 4 on Sunday, with the five other candidates seeing the event as a chance to gain momentum in the race for second place.
By Thursday Conservative MPs will have whittled down the list of candidates to a shortlist of two names; some 160,000 Conservative members will then make the final choice in July.
Former work and pensions secretary Ms McVey, eliminated from the contest in the first round, told the Sunday Telegraph she was backing Mr Johnson because he had promised to deliver Brexit by 31 October.
Matt Hancock, who withdrew from the contest last week, is expected to announce shortly whether he will back Mr Johnson or Michael Gove in the second round of voting, which takes place on Tuesday.
Mr Gove, who finished third in round one behind Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, said he would be willing to serve in a Johnson administration but said in an interview with the Sunday Times he was the “comeback kid”.
“I would absolutely work with Boris in any way that he wanted to work with me,” he said. “No question. It is a different time requiring a different approach.”
Mr Hunt, who is struggling to gain momentum in the contest, tried to shake off claims by his critics that he is a safety-first, “continuity May” candidate. He told the Mail on Sunday: “I am the insurgent in this race.”
The YouGov poll put the Brexit party in first place on 24 per cent, three points ahead of the Conservatives and Labour, helping Mr Johnson to make the case that a new prime minister will have to deliver Brexit to thwart Nigel Farage’s new party.
The poll for the Sunday Times showed that Mr Johnson sharply divided opinion: 22 per cent of respondents said they would be more likely to support the Tories if he was prime minister, while no other candidate scored more than 8 per cent.
However it reinforced other polls which showed that while he can reach swing voters he is highly unpopular with a section of the population: some 48 per cent disagreeing with the proposition that he would unite the nation.