RORY Stewart is in talks with Michael Gove about "combining forces" in a "Scottish pact" to take on Boris Johnson in the battle for the Conservative crown.

The move came as a source in the Stewart camp expressed fears that supporters of the former Foreign Secretary were "lending" their votes to Sajid Javid to knock out the International Development Secretary whose fortunes have rised as the contest has gone on.

As MPs prepared to vote a third time this afternoon, the race is now on to see who will be the challenger to Mr Johnson, who is the clear frontrunner and could, in today’s vote, poll half or nearly half of the 313 Conservative MPs.

Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary, whose candidacy was eliminated in the second round, came out for Mr Johnson. The Surrey MP said: "The only candidate who will now do this is Boris Johnson and so I'll be supporting him to become our next Prime Minister."

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According to a poll by Opinium, people felt Mr Stewart and Mr Johnson had performed best in the BBC’s live TV debate with Mr Gove seen as performing the worst.

But another snapshot by YouGov placed Mr Stewart top with 35 per cent, followed by Mr Johnson on 21, Jeremy Hunt on 14, Mr Gove on nine and Mr Javid on five. However, the same pollster when it took the view of just Tory voters found Mr Johnson came out on top followed by Mr Hunt and then Mr Stewart.

One minister claimed the International Development Secretary had “peaked” and that it now looked like the Foreign Secretary was in pole position to challenge his predecessor for the final two-candidate face-off.

There have been suggestions that tactical voting will now play a part as the Johnsonites "lend" their votes to who they regard as the weaker candidate; seemingly the Home Secretary, who just sneaked through the second round vote with 33 votes.

However, one senior Tory told The Herald: "My colleagues are not that sophisticated."

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Mr Stewart confirmed he was now in discussion with Mr Gove, prompting talk of a "Scottish pact," saying: "We are talking about combining forces because it's clear that Boris is going into the last round.

"And the question is: 'Who is best placed to sit on stage with Boris Johnson and who is best placed to ask the testing questions that need to be asked?'"

The Borders MP said he and Mr Gove would need to discuss how to get a Brexit deal through, adding: "We would have to agree to compromise and if neither of us were prepared to budge on our analysis of the situation then, of course, we couldn't combine as a team."

Later his spokeswoman was adamant: “Rory wants to lead.”

She explained: "Clearly, at some point people will need to combine teams. But any team that gets combined, Rory wants to lead it; Rory believes he is the only one with a chance to beat Boris in the final two and to provide the clearest choice.

"He's the one out polling in the areas we need to win. Rory's in this to win, whether on his own or with other people coming behind him and go all the way to the final two and No 10," she added.

Mr Stewart took to social media to insist he is the only "real alternative" to Mr Johnson in the Tory leadership race, stressing he has "momentum, energy and public appeal".

He tweeted: "1. I am in this to win - the real alternative to Boris. 2. I speak to [Michael Gove] regularly and hope he would have a big role in any Government. 3. I am the candidate with the most momentum, energy and public appeal. Our members deserve a choice. 4. If it's not me, it will be PM Boris."

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Earlier, Mr Hunt suggested Mr Johnson would not be trusted in Brussels while he would be.

"We need a negotiator. A negotiator has to have three qualities. The first is it has to be someone the other side trust, because you don't do a deal with somebody you don't trust.

"Secondly, it has got to be someone who doesn't blink. And thirdly, it has got to be somebody who is prepared to walk away.

"Now, the danger is that if we choose the wrong person now, we will have no trust, no negotiation, no deal, and possibly, if we have an election, no Brexit," added the Foreign Secretary.

In today’s round of voting, there is no threshold; so, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The result is due at 6pm. Two more rounds of voting are due tomorrow with the results expected at 1pm and 6pm.

The contest with just two contenders, then goes out to the party membership for a month-long series of hustings. The Scottish one will be on Friday July 5, probably in Perth. The new leader, and PM, is due to be announced in the week beginning Monday July 22.