FEWER than half of the Conservative Party's 160,000 members have so far cast their votes in the leadership contest and sent them on to Tory HQ, party sources have suggested.

The claim will hearten Jeremy Hunt and his camp as there are still 11 days to go before ballots close on Monday July 22. It will also challenge the accepted view at Westminster that it is inevitable that Boris Johnson will win the Conservative crown.

Today, the frontrunner boasted that he had received the support of more than half of all of the selected Conservative election candidates in his bid to become the next Prime Minister.

The former London Mayor claimed to have the support of Scottish Conservative Oliver Mundell, which would place the MSP for Dumfriesshire in the opposite camp to his father, David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, who is backing Mr Hunt.

The development came as Amber Rudd, a staunch supporter of the Foreign Secretary, dramatically changed tack and ditched her opposition to a no-deal outcome; seen at Westminster as a move to show she would be willing to serve in a Johnson Cabinet.

She said: “Both candidates have said that no-deal is part of the armoury going forward and I have accepted that.

“The situation is that we are leaving at the end of October but it would be so much better to get a deal. What we really need is for everybody’s effort to go into trying to get a deal.”

Sources close to Ms Rudd have suggested she would like to keep her job as Work and Pensions Secretary in and that it was better to be in Cabinet as an influence rather than be on the backbenches.

The Johnson camp pointed out how the party had so far selected 37 candidates to contest key battleground seats at the next General Election and that 20 of these had now publicly announced their support for Mr Johnson.

It claimed that other prospective parliamentary candidates had privately declared they too would back the former London Mayor, meaning just four PPCs were backing Mr Hunt.

The Johnson camp also insisted this support was further evidence the party was uniting around Mr Johnson after more than half of current MPs voted for him in the first phase of the leadership contest and 60 per cent of Police and Crime Commissioners as well as more than 1,500 Conservative councillors had endorsed him.

“I am delighted to receive the endorsement of more than half of our wonderful PPCs all of whom will make great constituency MPs,” declared Mr Johnson.

“This support shows that Conservatives from Bedford to Blackpool recognise that I am the only candidate who can deliver Brexit by October 31, unite our country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.”

Last week, the Hunt camp boasted how Ruth Davidson and a majority of her MSPs had swung behind the Secretary of State. Indeed, among those Scottish MPs to have declared, Mr Hunt has their majority support too.

Meanwhile, a ConservativeHome poll of party members said 72 per cent were backing Mr Johnson with 28 per cent supporting Mr Hunt.

It also suggested that some 71 per cent of respondents said they had already voted, which is at odds with the party sources who are claiming the number of ballots cast and returned was well under 50 per cent. This seems to indicate that party members are taking their time to consider who best to support.

The winner of the contest will be declared on Tuesday July 23. The next day, he will visit Buckingham Palace to be invited by the Queen to take up the office of Prime Minister and form a new government.

Tonight on the BBC, the two candidates will each be interviewed by veteran broadcaster Andrew Neil.