LONDON: Britain’s William Hague announced his surprise resignation as foreign secretary on Monday, as Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron overhauled his government to set the battle-lines for elections next year.
“Tonight I am standing down as Foreign Secretary after four years to serve as Leader of the House of Commons,” Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party wrote on Twitter, also saying he would not run again for parliament in the May 2015 general election.
The reshuffle, much wider than expected, ousted roughly a dozen from the cabinet, purging the government of several veterans and reflecting a shift to the right in the Conservative Party and a hardened stance towards the European Union.
The move is expected to make way for younger politicians and more women, the first step of Cameron’s re-election campaign as he responds to pressure from the ascent of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party.
National broadcaster BBC reported that Hague, 53, could be replaced by current Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, known for taking a tougher stance on Europe.
Hammond has said he would vote for Britain to leave the EU unless a better membership deal is agreed, in a referendum Cameron has promised for 2017 if he is re-elected.
The opposition Labour Party branded the reshuffle a “massacre of the moderates” and a retreat away from the European Union.
Conservative veteran Kenneth Clarke, whose vocal support of Britain’s membership of the European Union had made him increasingly at odds with many in his party, also announced his resignation as minister without portfolio.
Energy and Climate Change Minister Gregory Barker, a modernising figure associated with Cameron’s promise to run the “greenest government ever” when he took office in 2010, also stepped down in another sign of a turn to the right.
Other Conservatives to have lost their cabinet jobs were universities minister David Willetts, international development minister Alan Duncan, minister for the Middle East Hugh Robertson, leader of the House of Commons George Young and Northern Ireland Minister Andrew Robathan, according to the prime minister’s office.
The shake-up was described as a “bloodbath” on the front page of Britain’s Daily Mirror, and as a “cull of the men in suits” by The Independent.
“I’m really worried that this reshuffle will leave the PM short of middle-aged white men in Govt. I’m selflessly ready Dave!” Conservative MP Alistair Burt wrote on Twitter.
Cameron said he wanted to pay an “enormous tribute” to Hague, saying he would remain his “de facto political deputy” and play a key role in campaigning ahead of the election.
Hague’s position as leader of the House of Commons, which he will hold until the next election, is a ministerial post which involves organising the government’s business in the lower house and working closely with the chief whip.
A member of parliament for 26 years, Hague’s four years as foreign secretary saw the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, Russian incursions into Ukraine and Britain grow increasingly cool towards its membership of the European Union.
Hague first made an impression on the party aged 16 with a rousing speech to the 1977 Conservative Party conference, when he was heartily applauded by then-opposition leader Margaret Thatcher.
Born in Yorkshire and educated at Oxford University, Hague rose to the leadership of the party aged 36, but resigned after losing to Labour in the 2001 general election.
Since his return to prominence in the party under Cameron’s leadership, he has come to be regarded as the unofficial deputy leader.
The resignation of Clarke as minister without portfolio is also a significant move for the party.
The 74-year-old, well known for his love of ale and jazz, has held the top posts of finance minister and interior minister, though he never became party leader despite three attempts.