William Hague shocked MPs last night by quitting as Foreign Secretary and announcing that he will leave the Commons at next year’s general election.
David Cameron will name a new Foreign Secretary on Tuesday, when he completes a wider than expected Cabinet reshuffle. It will not be George Osborne, who has expressed an interest in moving to the Foreign Office if the Conservatives retain power next year but is likely to remain as Chancellor until the election. On Monday night the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was tipped as Mr Hague’s successor.
In what was dubbed the “cull of the men in suits”, several ministers were sacked or stood down to make way for a new generation of younger Tory women who entered the Commons in 2010. Their posts will be announced on Tuesday as the Prime Minister unveils his new team for the election.
Those tipped for a move to the Cabinet include the Employment minister Esther McVey, who was seen entering No 10 last night and the Education minister Elizabeth Truss.
Margot James, Amber Rudd and Harriett Baldwin are also thought to be in line for promotion as Cameron seeks to counter criticism that older men dominate his cabinet.
The departures include David Jones, the Welsh Secretary; David Willetts, the Universities Minister; Damian Green, the Policing Minister; Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General; Nick Hurd, the minister for Mr Cameron’s flagship “big society” ; Greg Barker, the Energy and Climate Change Minister; Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister and Andrew Robathan, a Northern Ireland minister. The head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, was also sacked.
Labour will attack the shake-up as a “massacre of the moderates.”
Mr Hague, 53, said he wanted to return to writing books, which he did after his spell as Tory leader between 1997-2001. He will remain in the Cabinet as Leader of the Commons until the election, co-ordinating government policy and staying on as First Secretary of State, in effect Mr Cameron’s Tory deputy, before standing down as MP for Richmond in Yorkshire next May.
Another “big beast,” Kenneth Clarke, announced his retirement as a minister after a marathon 22-year stint . Mr Clarke, 74, stood down as Minister Without Portfolio. But the prominent Europhile intends to carry on as an MP after the election and vowed to play a key role in the “in” campaign in the in/out referendum on Europe Mr Cameron has promised in 2017.
Unlike Mr Clarke’s, Mr Hague’s departure from the Cabinet was unexpected. There had been signs he would leave it after the election but his decision to quit the Commons is a surprise.
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.”
He said was stepping aside as Foreign Secretary to focus all his efforts on gaining a Conservative victory next year. He will spearhead his party’s efforts to fight back in the North of England, where it needs to win several key marginals to secure a majority. “I want to finish in frontline politics as I began – speaking in Parliament and campaigning among the voters. After the general election I will return to my writing, while still giving very active support to the Conservative Party and campaigning on international causes I believe in,” said Mr Hague.
Mr Cameron said: “William Hague has been one of the leading lights of the Conservative Party for a generation, leading the party and serving in two cabinets. Not only has he been a first class Foreign Secretary – he has also been a close confidante, a wise counsellor and a great friend.”
There was speculation that Tuesday's Cabinet departures might include Andrew Lansley, the Commons Leader; Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary and Sir George Young, the Chief Whip, and that Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, might move to a new job. Right-wing Tories were optimistic of a return for Liam Fox, who resigned as Defence Secretary in 2011 over his dealings with his special adviser Adam Werrity.
In a parliamentary career dating back to 1970, Mr Clarke served as Chancellor, Home Secretary, Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Justice Secretary as he became the longest-serving minister since the Second World War. He stood three times for the Tory leadership and was seen by admirers as “the best leader we never had.” But his Europhile views counted against him as the centre of the party’s gravity shifted towards Euroscepticism.
In a letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Clarke said: “I have been doing red boxes at night for a high proportion of my adult life. There are plenty of other able people who could take on the work that I was doing in government and I think the time has come to return to being a veteran back bencher.”
Mr Clarke added: “My belief in Britain’s membership of the EU remains as firm as ever… We must not diminish Britain’s ability to influence events in the next few decades.” He said he would be “campaigning vigorously for a vote to keep us in the Union.”
Mr Barker said after 10 years in the the Energy and Climate Change post - both in opposition and in Government - he would not seek re-election in Bexhill and Battle next year, while Hurd thanked his "friends and critics in our brilliant voluntary sector."
"You have often driven me nuts but my respect and love is undimmed," he said of his resignation on Twitter.
There is growing speculation that Eric Pickles could be shifted to chief whip, with his communities and local government brief potentially being handed to a new Cabinet entrant.
Mr Cameron also needs to identify a new commissioner to represent the UK in Brussels.
He is thought to be reluctant to select an MP for the post and trigger a by-election that would suck up valuable resources. Former Tory leader Lord Howard of Lympne is among those being touted as a candidate.