Matt Hancock has quit the contest to become Conservative leader – and prime minister – a day after coming sixth in the first ballot of the party’s MPs.
The health secretary did not endorse any of his former rivals, but told the BBC he was “talking” to them all.
Mr Hancock, who had been the youngest contender, said he was “focused on the future” but the party needed a leader to succeed in “the here and now”.
Boris Johnson won the first Tory MPs’ ballot by a big margin, with 114 votes.
His nearest rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, got 43 votes.
The final two contenders remaining after further MPs’ ballots next week will go to a party-wide vote.
But cabinet minister David Lidington – who had backed Mr Hancock – told the BBC’s Political Thinking with Nick Robinson podcast: “The Conservative Party started having elections for its leaders in 1965. Only once in that time has the favourite won and that was when Michael Howard was unopposed.
“I think it’s still very open and no candidate can take things for granted – and shouldn’t.”
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Three candidates – Mark Harper, Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey – were knocked out in the first round, in which Mr Hancock, aged 40, received 20 votes.
His decision to withdraw from the race means six candidates remain.
Mr Hancock told BBC deputy political editor John Pienaar: “I’ve been incredibly encouraged and humbled by the amount of support that I’ve had in this campaign.
“I’ve tried to make the argument about the values that the Conservative Party needs to hold dear, of free enterprise and support for a free society and being open and optimistic and enthusiastic about the future.”
He added: “But the party clearly is looking for a candidate to deal with the here and now. I very much put myself forward as the candidate focused on the future.
“And so I’ve decided to withdraw from the race and instead see how best I can advance those values within the party and the big and difficult tasks we’ve got ahead.”
Mr Hancock said the remaining candidates all had “admirable qualities” and that all should take part in televised debates: “The nature of this contest isn’t just to be the leader of the Conservative Party. It’s to be the next prime minister, and so that scrutiny is important.”
He added: “We stand at a defining moment in our country’s history and we need to deliver Brexit and then we need to cast forward and bring the country together. That’s the goal.”
Further ballots are scheduled to take place next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to whittle down the contenders until only two are left. The process could be speeded up if anyone else drops out.
The final pair will be put to a vote of the 160,000 members of the Conservative Party from 22 June, with the winner expected to be announced about four weeks later.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson, the former foreign secretary and London mayor, said he was “delighted” to win the first ballot but warned his campaign still had “a long way to go”.
He picked up support from businessman Lord Sugar – who quit as a Labour peer in 2015 and sits as a crossbencher:
All of Mr Johnson’s remaining rivals have signed a joint letter committing to taking part in televised leadership debates on Channel 4 and the BBC on Sunday and Tuesday, in an effort to put pressure on Mr Johnson, who has not agreed to do so.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Hunt said the frontrunner should be “a little bit braver” and participate in the debates.
“What would Churchill say if someone who wanted to be prime minister was hiding away from the media?” he asked.
International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, who received 19 votes in the first leadership ballot, told the Today programme: “It’s really important for the legitimacy of the prime minister that this [leadership race] doesn’t take place in a smoke-filled room but that the public is able to see the candidates.”
Sources close to Mr Johnson say they are still in discussions with broadcasters.
One of his allies, MP Priti Patel, told Today there would be “plenty of opportunities for questioning”.
“The focus now is on the parliamentary process,” she added.
The UK’s next prime minister
On Tuesday 18 June, BBC One will host a live election debate between the Conservative MPs still in the race.
If you would like to ask the candidates a question live on air, use the form below. It should be open to all of them, not a specific politician.