British PM to unveil new cabinet after Hague quits

LONDON - Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron was poised to unveil a new cabinet on Tuesday ahead of next year's general election, in a major reshuffle that saw the surprise resignation of foreign secretary William Hague.

Hague's successor is widely tipped to be Philip Hammond, the arch-eurosceptic defence secretary who supports Britain leaving the European Union in a referendum in 2017 unless significant powers are returned to London.

Cameron is also set to confirm his broader ministerial line-up in the most wide-reaching reshuffle since his Conservative-led coalition government took power in 2010.

Newspapers billed it a cull of the "pale, male and stale" which would open the door for a new wave of women to get ministerial jobs.

The reshuffle aims to lend fresh ideas and a broader appeal to the government before the election in May 2015.

This would be followed by a referendum on Britain leaving the EU in three years' time if the Conservatives win.

Cameron said Hague, who was leader of the centre-right Tories between 1997 and 2001, had been "one of the leading lights of the Conservative Party for a generation".

He was a leading voice for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the House of Commons last year voted down missile strikes on the country in a major foreign policy blow to Cameron.

In recent months, Hague has worked closely with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie on a high-profile campaign to end rape as a weapon of war and is expected to continue work in this field.

He will continue to serve as a minister with responsibility for managing business in the House of Commons until the general election, when he will step down as a lawmaker.

In a series of Twitter postings confirming the news, Hague wrote: "From May 2015, after such a long period in politics I want to embark on many other things I have always wanted to do".

He added: "Renewal in politics is good, and holding office is not an end in itself. After 26 years as an MP time will be right for me to move on."

Conservatives 'not woman-free zone'

Hammond is seen as a safe pair of hands whose appointment to the Foreign Office would reassure eurosceptics.

"Hammond isn't the kind of politician to set the heather alight," wrote political commentator James Forsyth in a blog posting for the Spectator magazine.

"But the fact that someone who has said that they'd vote to leave if substantial powers were not returned to the UK in the renegotiation is now Foreign Secretary sends a clear message to the rest of the EU about the British position." As well as Hague's departure, around a dozen middle-aged, white male ministers are leaving Cameron's government.

They are expected to be replaced by a string of younger women, many of whom were only elected in 2010 but whose stock has been rising.

Cameron pledged in opposition that a third of his government would be female but has so far fallen well short of meeting this goal.

Political commentator Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times that the reshuffle was "meant to show female voters that the Conservative party is not a woman-free zone".

He added: "It is also meant to show eurosceptic rightwingers that Mr Cameron is willing to give them the time of day." The main opposition Labour Party branded the reshuffle a "massacre of the moderates" and a retreat away from the European Union.

"Britain's foreign policy is now set to be led by a man who has talked about taking us out of the EU," said shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher.

"The Tories are now retreating out of Europe with all the threat that poses to jobs and business in Britain.

"This reshuffle shows how weak David Cameron is, running scared of his own right wing."