After touring the country, blitzing social media and speaking to millions through TV debates, Rory Stewart, Britain’s maverick international development secretary, was eliminated Wednesday in the latest round of voting for the Conservative Party’s new leader.
His defeat followed a day of rumors and speculation about a plot to take him out of the race, underscoring the impact he had made in the contest. Under this scenario, some of the surfeit of votes moving to the clear favorite, Boris Johnson, could have been “lent” to other candidates as part of a push to ensure that Mr. Stewart was knocked out.
But on Wednesday, Mr. Stewart also lost ground among those who had previously sided with him, winning 10 fewer votes than he had in the last round of voting on Tuesday, while his rivals all gained and Mr. Johnson consolidated his lead.
Whatever lobbying and behind-the-scenes skulduggery there may have been, Mr. Stewart’s loss brought to an end an unorthodox and insurgent campaign that had taken other contenders by surprise. He had reached out beyond core Conservative supporters, sought compromise in the political center and defended an unpopular Brexit plan that has been defeated by Parliament three times.
But Mr. Stewart, who was promoted to the cabinet only a few weeks ago, was out of tune with the majority sentiment among fellow Conservative lawmakers and never had much chance of reaching the shortlist of two contenders from whom Conservative Party members will select their new leader, who will be Britain’s next prime minister.
Nonetheless Mr. Stewart’s unconventional campaign had shaken up a contest that at times has seemed like a procession toward Downing Street for Mr. Johnson, the former foreign secretary and figurehead of the pro-Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.
In the latest voting on Wednesday, Mr. Stewart finished fifth with 27 votes, behind Sajid Javid, the home secretary with 38, Michael Gove, the environment secretary with 51, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary with 54 and Mr. Johnson with 143.
Writing on Twitter, Mr. Stewart said that he was “moved and inspired” by the support he received adding, “It has given me a new faith in politics, a new belief in our country.”
Two more votes are scheduled for Thursday; these will decide which of the three remaining candidates will face Mr. Johnson, whose place in the final stage of the contest is practically assured.
Facing competition from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Conservative lawmakers are rallying to Mr. Johnson, who they believe is the only person with the charisma to save them from a crushing election defeat. Mr. Johnson is highly popular with party members, so the contest appears to be his to lose.
Yet, the momentum Mr. Stewart had gathered was boosted when he performed well in a televised debate on Sunday hosted by Channel 4. He failed to repeat that success on Tuesday night, when he was unable to impose himself on a more chaotic BBC debate with the other candidates. At one point Mr. Stewart removed his tie in apparent frustration.
On Brexit, Mr. Stewart has taken on the hard-liners, arguing that Mr. Johnson’s pledge to take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 — and if necessary without a deal — would be stopped by Parliament and was therefore an empty threat. Mr. Stewart derided suggestions from other candidates that Parliament might be suspended to bypass objections to an exit without an agreement.
On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson appeared to waver over his promise to meet the October Brexit deadline, saying that an exit then was “eminently feasible.”
Mr. Stewart had also made the hardest hitting attacks on Mr. Johnson’s character, questioning his ability to master details and his suitability to be prime minister.
So the conspiracy theorists may be onto something, if only to the extent that Conservative lawmakers who had supported him decided that giving Mr. Stewart a platform to attack Mr. Johnson’s record for several more weeks would ultimately damage the party’s long-term prospects and only help the opposition Labour Party.
Mr. Stewart’s campaign has undoubtedly raised his public profile and would normally help him secure a top job in the next cabinet. He has, however, ruled out the possibility of serving under Mr. Johnson, whose campaign looks unstoppable.