Boris Johnson held on to his massive lead as the race to elect a new Conservative Party leader, who will replace Theresa May as Britain's Prime Minister, entered its final phase on Thursday with Pakistani-origin home secretary Sajid Javid knocked out of the contest.
The battle for the second spot in the race took a turn as UK environment secretary Michael Gove overtook UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in the latest round of secret ballots being held among Conservative Party MPs in the House of Commons.
The former foreign secretary Johnson held on to his lead as the contest entered its last phase to finalise the two remaining contenders who will proceed to a 160,000-strong Tory membership postal ballot.
In the latest tally, Johnson has a runaway lead with 157 votes, followed by Gove at 61 votes and Hunt at 59. Javid, 49, Britain's senior-most minister, secured just 34 votes in the third ballot.
"Truly humbled by the support I have received from colleagues and Conservatives around the country. We ran to win, but I am incredibly proud of the race we have run together," Javid said in a statement after the latest round of voting.
"Don't let anyone try and cut you down to size or say you aren't a big enough figure to aim high. You have as much right as anyone to a seat at the top table," he said addressing at "kids who look and feel a bit different to their classmates' in reference to his South Asian roots.
Javid said he will resume his focus on his current role as home secretary and will reflect on whether to publicly offer his support to another candidate in the race.
The influential Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson a key supporter of Javid said she now wanted Gove in the final two, describing him as "smart, articulate and always on top of detail".
Johnson, who resigned from the Theresa May-led Cabinet last year over her Brexit strategy, said he was "incredibly grateful" for the support of more than half of all Conservative MP, adding that there was "much more work to do".
Gove said he was "absolutely delighted" after he leapfrogged to second place.
"If I make the final two I look forward to having a civilised debate of ideas about the future of our country," he said.
Hunt struck a note of caution, telling his party colleagues that the leadership battle was now at a "critical" stage.
"Choose me for unity over division, and I will put Boris through his paces and then bring our party and country back together," he said.
The final two contenders will go forward into a UK-wide hustings phase as they work on convincing the wider Tory party membership, with the winner set to be announced on July 22.
Meanwhile, the candidates in the race, which originally started with six contenders in the fray after the first round of voting last week, went head to head for their first live television debate for the BBC.
The debate ended up in controversy over the choice of the members of public chosen for the question and answer session.
Two Indian-origin questioners, an imam and an employment lawyer, were later suspended from their respective jobs in the wake of the row and after their views expressed on social media in the past were exposed.
While Imam Abdullah Khan was suspended from his post of Deputy Head of the Al-Ashraf Primary School girls' school at Gloucester in the west of England over anti-Jewish remarks, solicitor Aman Thakar was suspended as the law firm Leigh Day said it would need to investigate one of his previous tweets.
Thakar, a Labour Party candidate for a local election in London last year, was forced to apologise over an old message seemingly praising Hitler.
"This is not my point of view, I was being sarcastic about the speech that was given and hope this provides you with the full context of the comment," he said, in a formal apology.