Blow for Boris Johnson as Amber Rudd backs Tory leadership rival Jeremy Hunt
Boris Johnson's campaign to become Tory leader has suffered a setback after Amber Rudd backed her Cabinet colleague Jeremy Hunt for the top job.
The Work and Pensions Secretary - a key player in the 'One Nation' caucus of moderate Tory MPs - said that Mr Hunt would be a "serious leader" for "serious times".
And in a thinly-veiled dig at Mr Johnson - who had tried to persuade Ms Rudd to back his leadership bid - said it was "not enough to be told to shut your eyes, cross your fingers, pick up some magic beans and believe in Britain".
Her announcement came after the One Nation caucus held interview-style hustings with the leading candidates in Westminster last week.
Writing in The Times, Ms Rudd said Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt "stands out above everyone".
She said: "I was encouraged by the methodical way in which he approached the inescapable facts of the Brexit impasse and sought to provide solutions to them.
"He is approaching this seismic challenge with confidence, craft, vision and attention to detail.
"And most importantly Jeremy is committed to respecting the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border and, crucially, to agreeing a deal with the European Union that parliament will agree to."
Heaping praise on Mr Hunt for his "personal touch and relationship-building" skills, the Work and Pensions Secretary backed him as the right person to "break the impasse" over Brexit.
"It is not enough to be told to shut your eyes, cross your fingers, pick up some magic beans and believe in Britain," she said.
"We need a skilled negotiator and deal-maker, not an instruction for more optimism."
Ms Rudd added: "These are serious times. They require a serious leader who will be listened to in Brussels. Jeremy Hunt is that leader and I am deeply proud to support him."
The high-profile endorsement for Mr Hunt - which increases the chances of a Johnson-v-Hunt battle in the final two - came as he prepared to formally launch his bid for the Conservative leadership with a speech in Westminster.
He is expected to say: "This extremely serious moment calls for an experienced, serious leader. We need the art of tough negotiation, not the art of empty rhetoric."
Rivals Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock will also set out their stalls on Monday, while fellow contender Sajid Javid's campaign received a boost as he secured the endorsement of three Home Office ministers.
Writing in The Telegraph Caroline Nokes, Victoria Atkins and Baroness Williams said: "We are convinced he is the person around whom people will be able to unite, who represents the Britain of now and the Britain of the future, and who can win a general election."
Mr Johnson is currently the frontrunner to succeed Theresa May, with more than 50 Tory MPs publicly backing his leadership bid.
Michael Gove - who is facing mounting criticism after admitting to using cocaine in the past - has the public support of 33 MPs, just ahead of Mr Hunt on 30.
Mr Raab meanwhile has the backing of 24 Tories while Mr Javid has secured 20 and Mr Hancock has 14 MPs on board.
Candidates hoping to formally enter the race will need to secure the backing of eight colleagues by 5pm on Monday, before the field is whittled down to the final two through a series of votes by Conservative MPs.