William Hague and Ken Clarke, who’ve spent a quarter century at the top of British politics, announced their departures from public life as David Cameron sought to promote women and new faces within his Tory party before the May 2015 election.
The prime minister embarked yesterday on the biggest restructuring of his government since he took office in 2010, with Foreign Secretary Hague and Clarke, a minister without portfolio, the top names in a series of firings and resignations. Also leaving office are Attorney General Dominic Grieve, Science Minister David Willetts and Welsh Secretary David Jones. Cameron will announce replacements today.
“What’s striking is quite how sweeping it is, given that we’re 10 months from the election,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, London, said in an interview. “Normally you would see this kind of clear-out halfway through the cycle. It’s testament to how close the election is shaping up to be.”
While the exit from the cabinet of Clarke, 74, was signaled in advance, the news that Hague, 53, was leaving the Foreign Office hadn’t been predicted. His career showed that British political lives can have second acts: After leading the Tories to one of their worst results in 2001, he became a successful author and then, in 2010, foreign secretary. He’ll now replace Andrew Lansley as leader of the House of Commons until he retires from Parliament at the 2015 election.
“William Hague has been one of the leading lights of the Conservative Party for a generation, leading the party and serving in two cabinets,” Cameron said in an e-mailed statement. “Not only has he been a first-class foreign secretary, he has also been a close confidant, a wise counselor and a great friend. He will remain as First Secretary of State and my de facto political deputy in the run-up to the election.”
Hague’s replacement won’t be Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. An official familiar with Cameron’s plans, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he’ll stay in his post. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is set to take over as foreign secretary, Sky News television and the BBC reported.
U.K. media focused today on a statement by Hammond last year that he would have voted in a referendum to leave the European Union at that time. Clarke dismissed that argument. that would make him a more euro-skeptic foreign secretary than Hague,
‘Want to Stay’
“Any government of this country is going to want to stay in the European Union,” Clarke, who was the most pro-EU member of Cameron’s cabinet, told BBC Radio 4 this morning. “We’re going to get done serious reforms if we concentrate on the economic reforms we need.”
The prime minister will promote women and younger ministers to the posts becoming vacant, the official said. All nine named as leaving the government last night were men, including George Young, the 72-year-old chief whip, responsible for Tory party discipline.
“The polling shows the Tories have a problem with women, and they’ve got a problem with being seen as out of touch,” Bale said. “The replacement of these people will be designed to do something about that.”
Cameron has tried to promote women quickly through the ranks. Three who came into Parliament at the 2010 election, Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and Esther McVey, are now at the level below cabinet. The first member of the 2010 intake to reach the cabinet was Sajid Javid, the son of a Pakistani immigrant.
Penny Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist who was selected to make the first address to Parliament following last month’s Queen’s Speech, may also be promoted, according to U.K. newspapers.
Clarke, who served as John Major’s chancellor from 1993 to 1997, took his first government job in 1972, and has been a minister whenever the Conservative Party has held office since. His roles have included health secretary, education secretary and home secretary. He was previously justice secretary under Cameron.
Clarke’s breadth of experience meant he was able to deal confidently with situations that left many politicians nervous. Addressing a lunch of political journalists in 2009, his speaking notes were four words, scribbled on a scrap of paper as he ate.
He ran three times for the Tory leadership and was rejected each time, mainly because of his strong support for membership of the EU and, in its early days, the single currency. After the Conservatives returned to office in 2010, he was unafraid to speak his mind, and in 2011 offered a bet that his colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May, had got her facts wrong in her speech to the Conservative Party conference.
Hague’s recent months as foreign secretary have been marked by a campaign to halt the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. That’s seen him make frequent appearances alongside Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, and they jointly presided over an international conference on the issue in London last month.
Hague’s announcement that he will leave Parliament, a decision that is his alone, suggests his departure is his own idea. Having led his party and been foreign secretary, there were few political mountains left to climb.
Unlike many career politicians, he has also had a taste of life outside, when he left front-line politics after the Tories’ 2001 defeat to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. He wrote two books, about figures from Conservative history, William Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger. In private conversations, he talked with animation about the experience of writing.
Cameron doesn’t have the power to make changes to the posts held by his Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues, so Business Secretary Vince Cable and Energy Secretary Ed Davey will both stay in their jobs.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, plans to make changes in September or October, another official said on condition of anonymity.
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