David Cameron will start putting his new ministerial team in place after a cull of senior Tories and the shock departure of William Hague from the Foreign Office.
The Prime Minister is expected to promote a number of women and young rising stars to replace the male ministers axed in a brutal reshuffle which also saw the end of Ken Clarke’s lengthy ministerial career.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has been tipped to replace Mr Hague, who moves to become Leader of the Commons before standing down as an MP next year.
Mr Hague replaces Andrew Lansley as Commons Leader, and the former health secretary’s ministerial future is now uncertain.
Other senior casualties include chief whip Sir George Young, 72, who is retiring, while Mr Cameron is expected to confirm that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, whose allies mounted a desperate rearguard effort to save him, and Attorney General Dominic Grieve have been sacked.
Welsh Secretary David Jones was ousted by Mr Cameron, and is poised to be replaced by his deputy Stephen Crabb.
In another surprising move, the Prime Minister was reported to have sacked senior mandarin Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service.
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, Alan Duncan left his post at international development, while news of Hugh Robertson’s resignation from the Foreign Office filtered through while he was on an overseas trip in Beirut.
Nick Hurd said he was leaving his post as minister for civil society, while reports suggested policing minister Damian Green, rail minister Stephen Hammond and solicitor general Oliver Heald were all being sacked.
The departure of the foreign secretary 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 – after four years in which we have transformed Britain’s links with emerging economies, significantly expanded our diplomatic network and the promotion of British exports, restored the Foreign Office as a strong institution, and set a course to a reformed European Union and a referendum on our membership of it.
“I am delighted to be able to serve as Leader of the House of Commons and to be able to campaign for Conservative candidates across the country. I want to finish in front-line politics as I began – speaking in Parliament and campaigning among the voters.”
Mr Cameron needs to find a senior figure to be the UK’s next European Commissioner, but Mr Hague indicated that he wanted to concentrate on his writing career.
“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,” he said.
“I wish to thank my constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire, one of the greatest places on earth, for their emphatic support through thick and thin over such a long period. I will serve them with unabated energy between now and the general election, and I look forward to supporting my eventual successor.”
The Prime Minister 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. He will remain as First Secretary of State and my de facto political deputy in the run-up to the election – and it is great to know that he will be a core part of the team working to ensure an outright Conservative victory at the next election.”
Mr Clarke, 74, used his letter to Mr Cameron to signal his desire to campaign for the UK to remain in the European Union, ahead of the Prime Minister’s promised referendum in 2017.
The veteran Europhile, who took his first government post in 1972 and had been minister without portfolio since 2012, said: “We must not diminish Britain’s ability to influence events in the next few decades.
“I know that you are quite determined to have a referendum on the subject, in which I will be campaigning vigorously for a vote to keep us in the Union.”
Those tipped for advancement include employment minister Esther McVey, education minister Liz Truss and ministerial aide Penny Mordaunt.
Other women 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 political front line nearly three years after quitting in a row over his special adviser.
Labour said the reshuffle amounted to a “massacre of the moderates” and highlighted Mr Hammond’s Euroscepticism.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Michael Dugher said: “This speaks volumes about David Cameron’s leadership.
“Four years of failure to promote women and now we have the massacre of the moderates.
“Britain’s foreign policy is now set to be led by a man who has talked about taking us out of the EU. 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. That’s why he cannot focus on the big challenges facing families up and down the country.”