Rory Stewart’s hopes of becoming the next prime minister were dashed after his support collapsed in the third round of voting by Tory MPs.
The International Development Secretary secured just 27 votes – down 10 from Tuesday’s second ballot – as Boris Johnson again took a commanding lead in the race to Number 10.
Former foreign secretary Mr Johnson appears assured of being one of the two candidates who will face a vote by 160,000 Tory members to choose the next party leader and prime minister after extending his lead over nearest rival Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Johnson received 143 votes, up from 126 on Tuesday, with Mr Hunt on 54, up from 46.
Michael Gove was in third place, up 10 from 41 to 51 votes, while Sajid Javid picked up five extra votes to reach 38.
Mr Stewart said: “I am so moved and inspired by the support I have received over the last few weeks – it has given me a new faith in politics, a new belief in our country.
“I didn’t get enough MPs to believe today – but they will. I remain deeply committed to you and to this country.”
Mr Johnson’s extended lead of 89 votes was welcomed by the former Cabinet minister as he celebrated his 55th birthday.
“We’ve come a long way but we have much further to go,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt insisted that coming second for a third time meant he was the candidate best placed to take on Mr Johnson in the final stage of the contest.
“If I make it to the final I will put my heart and soul into giving him the contest of his life: in politics today the unexpected often happens,” he said.
“The stakes are too high to allow anyone to sail through untested.”
Mr Javid said he was “delighted” to have made it through to the next round of voting, which will take place on Thursday.
He thanked Mr Stewart for the “humility, authenticity, and pragmatism” he had shown during the campaign.
The International Development Secretary’s elimination could boost Mr Gove’s campaign, as the two Cabinet ministers had been in talks about “combining forces” – but neither was prepared to give way.
Mr Stewart’s loss of 10 votes has fuelled speculation at Westminster that some of Mr Johnson’s backers had lent him support in order to ensure that hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab was eliminated in Tuesday’s second ballot.
Others claimed Mr Johnson’s rivals had lent support to Mr Stewart to ensure he could appear on the BBC TV debate in the hope he could land some blows on the campaign frontrunner.
Mr Stewart told Sky News he was surprised that he had lost 10 votes, and did not understand why, adding: “But something in the air must have made them sense that something was going in the other direction.”
Two further rounds of voting will take place on Thursday to whittle the field down to the final two.
A source in Mr Javid’s campaign insisted he would not drop out, saying “we’ll be in the ballot tomorrow morning” and “Saj has a funny habit of defying the odds”.
After his elimination on Tuesday Mr Raab subsequently threw his weight behind Mr Johnson, claiming he was the sole contender who would ensure Brexit happened by October 31.
“Boris will make sure we leave the EU on time and move on to uniting the country behind a positive programme where everyone can benefit from the UK’s success,” he told the Evening Standard.
But fellow leadership hopeful Mr Hunt took a swipe at Mr Johnson’s Brexit stance, insisting his rival has an unclear policy and suggesting he is not trusted in Brussels.
The Foreign Secretary said he was “not entirely sure” what the front-runner believes when it comes to when Britain will leave the EU.
In the BBC debate on Tuesday evening, Mr Johnson said the October 31 deadline for Brexit was “eminently feasible”.
But Mr Hunt accused the former foreign secretary of lacking clarity on whether he guaranteed getting the UK out of the EU by the end of October.