BREAKING: Stephen Crabb drops out of Tory leadership race

WORK and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb has announced he is dropping out of the Tory leadership race and backing Theresa May.

Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Stephen Crabb, Theresa May

Former Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox was the first candidate to crash out of the Conservative Party leadership race this evening as Theresa May took more than half of the votes.

Just an hour later Mr Crabb said that while he felt he had something distinctive to offer the leadership contest there was clearly just one front-runner emerging.

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Dr Liam Fox was backed by 16 MPs, Stephen Crabb got 34 votes, Justice Secretary Michael Gove received 48 votes, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom took 66 votes and front runner Mrs May took 165 votes.

Speculation now turns to who will pick up 54-year-old Dr Fox’s votes and Mr Crabb’s 34 votes in the second round of voting on Thursday.

The expectation is that the vast majority of Dr Fox’s will go to last-minute and controversial entrant Mr Gove, however he would still be two short of Mrs Leadsom’s running total. Dr Fox however is expected to now back Mrs May.

Justice Minister Dominic Raab, who is backing Mr Gove for leader, said: “We are going to be aiming to pick up the aspirational society votes and the Brexit votes, and let’s face it, the big beast votes.”

While Mr Crabb has gone for Mrs May sources say he and his backers share more in common with Mr Gove.

One source said his hustings speech and Mr Gove’s shared an almost identical vision for social reform. If his 34 votes transferred to Mr Gove that would put him on 82 votes and ahead of Mrs Leadsom.

As the leadership hopefuls now turn their attention to Thursday’s vote, energy minister Andrea Leadsom continues to ride a wave of popularity and is tipped to be the eventual challenger to Home Secretary Theresa May on the final two-candidate ballot paper.

For many Conservatives her camp has become the natural political home of staunch Brexiters and those who feel Mr Gove’s decision to run as leader cruelly robbed Boris Johnson of his own political ambition.

Yorkshire and Humber’s Conservative MPs backing Mrs Leadsom include Philip Davies, MP for Shipley and a staunch campaigners for Brexit and Martin Vickers, the MP for Cleethorpes.

Mr Davies said Mrs Leadsom stands out from a very strong field of candidates because she wants to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as soon as possible so which would mean Britain would be free from the EU by 2017. He said she has also been the strongest advocate of ending the free movement of people.

He said: “I have decided to support Andrea Leadsom as I have been incredibly impressed with her ever since she arrived in Parliament, and in particular through the EU Referendum campaign where she led from the front, and also showed a steely determination which we need in a Prime Minister.

“Andrea also has great experience from her time before entering Parliament in the financial services sector and that expertise and experience will be hugely beneficial over the next few years.”

However the majority of MPs in Yorkshire are backing Theresa May, with only Julian Sturdy, MP for York Outer backing the “blue-collar” double act of work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb and business secretary Sajid Javid. Tory MP for Morley and Outwood, Andrea Jenkyns and Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, are backing Mr Gove.

Following a hustings event on Monday night in Westminster Alec Shelbrooke, who is backing Mrs May, said Mrs Leadsom had shown very little interest in the North of England during her play for votes.

He said: “She had no regard for the North of England. She was asked about the North and it was a wholly unsatisfactory answer. We need a strong leader who has a big vision, and that has to be on more than just Europe. I’m also concerned about Andrea Leadsom’s decision not to separate herself from people like Arron Banks.”

UKIP donor Mr Banks announced he was backing Mrs Leadsom, which Mr Shelbrooke said is concerning because it may be a sign of increasing entryism from those prepared to pay the £25 membership to ensure Mrs Leadsom is elected.

He said: “There is concern from a lot colleagues that she is actively encouraging entryism. And we only have to look at the Labour Party to see what kind of damaging effect that has had.”

Front-runner Mrs May continues to face criticism over her refusal to give firm assurances that European Union nationals would be allowed to remain in the UK and was accused by former Cabinet colleague Ken Clarke of having little knowledge of foreign policy. Tory veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind said he did not mind who won, as long as Mr Gove came third.

It is understood that Mrs Leadsom’s performance at hustings also led some Brexiters to swing back to Gove as they looked for someone else with Cabinet level experience.

Mr Gove told the Yorkshire Post earlier this week he would naturally accept the outcome of the leadership vote.