William Hague has quit as British foreign secretary and will leave the Commons next year as David Cameron wielded the axe to clear the way for a new generation to take places at the cabinet table.
Mr Hague, a former Tory leader, will replace Andrew Lansley as leader of the Commons and lead the Conservative campaign in key constituencies, particularly in northern England, until he gives up his safe seat in Richmond, North Yorkshire.
The prime minister said Mr Hague had been one of the Conservative Party’s “leading lights” for a generation and had been a “close confidante, wise counsellor and great friend”. The shock announcement follows the widely expected decision by Ken Clarke to retire at 74, ending a career in government stretching back to 1972. Veteran MP George Young also resigned as chief whip, creating another cabinet-level position for Mr Cameron to fill.
The vacancy at the foreign office will be a plum job for Mr Cameron to allocate, but there are also a number of other spots at the cabinet table and in the lower ministerial ranks for him to award to rising stars as he refreshes his team before the 2015 general election.
Downing Street said the prime minister also accepted the resignations of universities minister David Willetts and energy and climate change minister Greg Barker, who will both stand down as MPs next year.
Andrew Robathan quit as a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, while news of Hugh Robertson’s resignation from the foreign office filtered through while he was on an overseas trip in Beirut.
Wider than expected
In a reshuffle which has been much wider than expected, David Jones was sacked as Welsh secretary, Dominic Grieve was reported to have lost his job as attorney general and Owen Paterson was rumoured to be heading to the exit as environment secretary despite a rearguard effort by allies to keep him in office.
Universities minister David Willetts stood down and declared his intention to quit as an MP next year while Nick Hurd said he was leaving his post as minister for civil society. Greg Barker, who helped run Mr Cameron’s Tory leadership bid, quit as energy and climate change minister.
Reports suggested international development minister Alan Duncan and policing minister Damian Green were all leaving the government.
The prime minister is expected to take the opportunity to promote fresh faces, including women MPs to his team and the surprise departure of Mr Hague creates an opportunity to appoint someone to one of the great offices of state for the first time since 2010.
Senior sources dismissed speculation that Chancellor George Osborne could be moved to the foreign office, with government insiders insisting he was focused on the economic recovery.
Mr Hague said: “By the time of the general election next year, I will have served 26 years in the House of Commons and it will be 20 years since I first joined the cabinet.
“In government there is a balance to strike between experience on the one hand and the need for renewal on the other, and I informed the prime minister last summer that I would not be a candidate at the next general election.
“Accordingly I am stepping aside as foreign secretary, in order to focus all my efforts on supporting the government in parliament and gaining a Conservative victory in the general election ... ”
Those tipped for advancement include employment minister Esther McVey, education minister Liz Truss and ministerial aide Penny Mordaunt.
Other MPs tipped for promotion include Margot James, Amber Rudd and Harriett Baldwin, as the Tory leader seeks to counter criticism that his government is still dominated by men. Former defence secretary Liam Fox, a darling of the Tory right, could make a comeback to the front line nearly three years after quitting in a row over his special adviser. – (PA)