The Government has been plunged into turmoil after Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi dramatically stormed out, saying David Cameron’s policy on Gaza was “morally indefensible”.
Lady Warsi, who was the first Muslim minister to sit in Cabinet, said she could not support a position which ran counter to Britain’s national interest and risked radicalising a new generation of young Muslims.
Her resignation was met with ill-disguised fury among Mr Cameron’s inner circle, with Chancellor George Osborne branding her action “disappointing and unnecessary”.
But the move prompted renewed calls from some senior Conservatives for the Government to take a tougher line with Israel over its incursion into Gaza in the face of rising Palestinian casualties.
There were concerns among some Tories that – with the general election just nine months away – the Government’s stance could cost them the support of Muslim voters in key battleground constituencies.
Athough Lady Warsi had been signalling her concern over the Government’s position for some time, her decision to walk out appeared to have taken No 10 by surprise.
With Mr Cameron on holiday in Portugal, she did not even wait for the traditional exchange of letters with the Prime Minister, using her Twitter page to post her letter on the internet.
“My view has been that our policy in relation to the Middle East peace process generally, but more recently our approach and language during the current crisis in Gaza, is morally indefensible, is not in Britain’s national interest and will have a long-term detrimental impact on our reputation internationally and domestically,” she wrote.
In his reply (in bold at the bottom of this story) Mr Cameron expressed “regret” that they had been unable to speak before she made her decision to go.
“I understand your strength of feeling on the current crisis in the Middle East – the situation in Gaza is intolerable,” he wrote.
“Of course, we believe that Israel has the right to defend itself. But we have consistently made clear our grave concerns about the heavy toll of civilian casualties and have called on Israel to exercise restraint, and to find ways to bring this fighting to an end.”
Mr Osborne was scathing about her decision to leave, just as a humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Hamas finally appeared to be holding.
“This a disappointing and frankly unnecessary decision,” he said. “The British Government is working with others in the world to bring peace to Gaza and we do now have a tentative ceasefire which we all hope will hold.”
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I do find it rather surprising that she has chosen now, this particular moment, to take this step when, in fact, we are now at long last seeing some relief, seeing some progress on the issues about which she was so passionately concerned.”
Ministers will be concerned that a series of senior Conservatives spoke out to express support for her action.
Former justice minister Crispin Blunt said she had been “brave and principled” while Sarah Wollaston praised her “principled stand”, adding: “I hope it changes policy.”
Senior backbencher Nicholas Soames said the Government needed to “note and learn”, saying: “She was right to leave over a matter of such great importance.”
London mayor Boris Johnson said he hoped she would return to the Government “as soon as possible”, while he condemned the Israeli action as “disproportionate” – a word Mr Cameron and Mr Hammond have consistently avoided.
“I can’t for the life of me see how this can be a sensible strategy,” he said during a LBC radio phone-in. “I think it is disproportionate, I think it is ugly and it is tragic and I don’t think it will do Israel any good in the long run.”
Mr Hammond was dismissive, insisting the Government’s position was geared towards achieving a long-term political solution to the crisis.
“To my colleagues who say can you do a bit more megaphone diplomacy over here or over there, offend one side or the other side a bit more, I say it is more important to achieve the result we all want to see,” he said.
The drama unfolded just days after Downing Street reacted furiously to a call by Ed Miliband for the Government to take a firmer line on Israel, with No 10 accusing the Labour of trying to “play politics” with the issue.
Mr Miliband said on Tuesday that Lady Warsi had acted with “principle and integrity” and urged Mr Cameron to rethink his position.
“I hope that David Cameron will reflect on what she says in her resignation letter and change his approach,” he told BBC News.
“He needs to break his silence and say that Israel’s actions have been unjustified and indefensible. He needs to show that he can be even-handed and, without fear or favour, argue for the long-term solution that we need to this tragic conflict.”
In her resignation letter, posted on her Twitter page, Lady Warsi hinted that she was unhappy at the impact of changes in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle – including the replacement of William Hague as foreign secretary by Mr Hammond.
“There is, however, great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both ministers and senior officials, in the way recent decisions have been made,” she wrote.
She also highlighted the departures of Cabinet veteran Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, both seen as strong upholders of international law.
She pointed to evidence emerging from the Home Office suggesting the fallout from the conflict in Gaza and Britain’s response to it would be a basis for radicalisation which “could have consequences for us for years to come”.
Lady Warsi became the first Muslim to sit in the Cabinet when she was made Conservative Party co-chairman by David Cameron following the 2010 general election.
She was subsequently moved to the post of minister of state at the Foreign Office and minister for faith and communities in Mr Cameron’s 2012 reshuffle in a move widely regarded as a demotion.
In a statement later, Lady Warsi said: “Over the last four weeks I have done all I can, both at formal meetings and informal meetings, trying to convince my colleagues that our current policy on Gaza is morally indefensible, it’s not in our interests, it’s not in British interests, and that it will have consequences for us both internationally and here at home.
“But in the end I thought the Government’s position was not moving and so I had to, on a point of principle, resign.”
• Sayeeda Warsi’s appointment to his then shadow cabinet was seen as a public statement of intent by David Cameron to change the face of his party.
And in Government the Prime Minister has stuck by her through thick and thin.
A successful lawyer, she was born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 1971, and was the first Asian woman to be selected by the Tories to fight a parliamentary seat.
She came within 4,615 votes of unseating Labour’s Shahid Mailk as MP for her home town in 2005.
In 2007 she entered the House of Lords instead as a Tory life peer, having worked as an adviser to both Mr Cameron and his predecessor, Michael Howard.
Educated at Birkdale High School and Dewsbury College, she studied law at Leeds University – going on to work for the Crown Prosecution Service, the Home Office and her own practice in Yorkshire.
Racial justice has always been high on her agenda. She was instrumental in the launch of Operation Black Vote in Yorkshire and served on the local Racial Justice Committee.
She also worked in Pakistan – where her family originated – on a forced marriage project with the Foreign Office.
The married mother-of-five was once dubbed “the most influential Asian woman in British politics” by BBC radio and was praised in 2006 for the way she handled an Islamic extremist who insisted she should wear a veil on Newsnight.
She entered Government after the 2010 general election, becoming Britain’s first female Muslim Cabinet minister and hailing her appointment to the top table as a ‘’humbling’’ moment.
And she ditched the pinstriped traditions of her predecessors as Tory Party chairman as she posed outside Downing Street in traditional Islamic garments after the coalition Cabinet’s first meeting. Gamely removing her coat at the request of photographers and hanging it on a railing outside 10 Downing Street, she braved the chill morning air to reveal a pink and purple shalwar kameez.
She then told reporters: ‘’To be born as the daughter of an immigrant mill worker in a mill town in Yorkshire, to have the privilege of serving in Cabinet at such an important time in Britain’s history, I think it is terribly humbling.’’
But her time in Government has not been entirely without incident.
In 2012, Mr Cameron ordered an inquiry into whether she breached the ministerial code when she was accompanied by a business partner on an official visit to Pakistan.
Lady Warsi wrote a letter of apology to Mr Cameron, saying she was ‘’sincerely sorry’’ for the embarrassment to the Government.
But the inquiry concluded that she was guilty of only a “minor” breach of the ministerial code.
She was also cleared of abusing expenses by claiming for overnight stays at a property she was using for free although she was found to have breached rules by failing to declare that she was renting out her own London home.
A few weeks later Baroness Warsi was moved in Mr Cameron’s first reshuffle, losing her job as Tory Party co-chairman, which she shared with Michael Fallon.
Rising star Grant Shapps was appointed party chairman in her place but Baroness Warsi stayed in the Government as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Faith Groups after apparently insisting Mr Cameron give her a more substantial role.
• Here is the full text of David Cameron’s letter responding to Lady Warsi’s resignation:
Thank you for your letter today, in which you set out your reasons for resigning from the Government. I was sorry to receive this.
I realise that this must not have been an easy decision for you to make and very much regret that we were not able to speak about your decision beforehand.
I understand your strength of feeling on the current crisis in the Middle East – the situation in Gaza is intolerable. Our policy has always been consistently clear: we support a negotiated two-state solution as the only way to resolve this conflict once and for all and to allow Israelis and Palestinians to live safely in peace.
Of course, we believe that Israel has the right to defend itself. But we have consistently made clear our grave concerns about the heavy toll of civilian casualties and have called on Israel to exercise restraint, and to find ways to bring this fighting to an end.
As part of that, we have consistently called for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire.
More widely, I would like to take this opportunity to let you know how grateful I am for the contribution you have made to the Conservative Front Bench, both in Opposition and in Government, over seven years’ continuous service.
As the Minister for Faith and Communities, working with Eric Pickles in the Department for Communities and Local Government, you played an important role in the Government’s integration agenda – building more united communities, tackling hate crime, harnessing the power of faith groups and championing Britain’s common heritage.
At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, your hard work in tackling persecution around the world, between faiths and within faiths, has had a lasting impact, as has your work to put the UK at the heart of the global Islamic Finance system.
You can also take pride in how you have built relationships with the countries and leaders of Central Asia, and particularly the role you have played supporting democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Perhaps most importantly, I would like you to know how much I have personally appreciated your support and friendship over the years, and your commitment to our Party and the Government. You were one of the early supporters of my leadership campaign in 2005, something for which I remain grateful.
We have been through a great deal together since then and I will never forget how proud we both were when, in May 2010, you joined the Cabinet as Chairman of the Conservative Party.
You can take pride in your achievements in Government and, especially, for being the first Muslim woman in any British Cabinet. I appreciate your assurance of support in the months and years to come and I hope that you will always feel able to raise any issue with me at any time.
This comes with my thanks, and best wishes for the future.