Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi has resigned, branding the Government’s policy on Gaza as “morally indefensible” and detrimental to Britain’s national interest.
Lady Warsi, a Yorkshire peer who was the first Muslim to sit in Cabinet, informed Prime Minister David Cameron that she could no longer support the Government’s stance on the issue.
Chancellor George Osborne immediately hit back, saying her decision was “unnecessary” and insisting that ministers were committed to working to secure peace in the region.
“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.”
In her resignation letter, Lady Warsi said: “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.”
Lady Warsi’s resignation appeared to have caught No 10 by surprise, with Mr Cameron currently out of the country on holiday.
Her departure is a heavy blow to the Prime Minister - both because of the way that it highlights divisions within the Tory ranks over Middle East policy and because it marks the loss of a woman minister at a time when he has been trying to promote more women in Government.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister regrets that Baroness Warsi has decided to stand down and is grateful for the excellent work that she has done, both as a minister and in opposition.
“Our policy has always been consistently clear - the situation in Gaza is intolerable and we’ve urged both sides to agree to an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”
It comes amid growing unease among Conservative MPs that the Government has failed to take a firmer line with Israel over its incursion into Gaza in the face of mounting Palestinian casualties.
There was backing for her move from senior Conservative backbencher Nicholas Soames, who wrote on his Twitter feed: “The Government needs to note and learn from the resignation of Sayeeda Warsi. She was right to leave over a matter of such great importance.”
London mayor Boris Johnson paid tribute to her, saying he hoped she would make a return to the Government soon, while he condemned the Israeli action as “disproportionate” - a word Mr Cameron and Foreign Secretary Philip 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.”
Lady Warsi has signalled her own concern about what was happening in a series of comments on her Twitter feed in recent days.
In one she wrote: “Can people stop trying to justify the killing of children. Whatever our politics, there can never be justification, surely only regret.”
In another, just three days ago, she said: “If there is a community meeting or protest in relation to Gaza happening near you, I’d like to know, please tweet me the details.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the Government had consistently argued for a ceasefire although he acknowledged there were “differences of emphasis” on how forceful it should be.
“The Prime Minister must speak for himself. He’s been clear that he regards the violence in Gaza as appalling and has called repeatedly for a humanitarian ceasefire,” he said.
“There are differences of emphasis, long-standing differences of emphasis about how forceful the Government should be, and how forceful Britain should be in seeking to bring the two sides together.”
For Labour, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said many people would support her reasons for resigning.
“Most reasonably-minded people across Britain will agree with the sentiments expressed by Baroness Warsi in her resignation statement today,” he said.
“It is a sad reflection of the Prime Minister’s misjudgment of the crisis in Gaza that this capable minister has felt the need to leave the Government.
“Labour has consistently opposed the Israeli incursion into Gaza and has repeatedly urged the Prime Minister to speak up and to speak out against the horrific loss of life witnessed in recent weeks, but he has so far failed to do so.”
In her resignation letter, posted on her Twitter page, Lady Warsi expressed concern at the impact of changes in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle on Government policy.
She pointedly described William Hague, who was moved from the Foreign Office, as “one of the finest foreign secretaries this country has seen”, before adding: “There is, however, great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both ministers and senior officials, in the way recent decisions have been made.”
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.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said Lady Warsi had acted with “principle and integrity” and urged Mr Cameron to re-think his position.
Tory MEP Sajjad Karim - the first British Muslim to be elected to the European Parliament - said ministers were out of step with public opinion on Gaza.
“It was only a matter of time before a significant Government figure actually came out and felt that they had no choice but to take such a step,” he said.
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.