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Major's foreign secretary retires

British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd announced his retirement Friday, strengthening Prime Minister John Major's hand against potential challengers to his leadership of the ruling Conservative Party.

Major, in a surprise announcement Thursday, resigned as leader of his divided party and challenged his critics to come up with a replacement. While it appeared Friday that a candidate from the party's right wing would materialize, no heavyweight has joined the fray.

Hurd, foreign secretary since October 1989, is widely respected in foreign policy circles as a skillful, intelligent and genteel diplomat. But he is a particular target of criticism from the party's right because of his generally positive attitude on Britain's increased participation in the European Union. Political observers here think his departure may temper some of the opposition to Major, helping to limit the number of abstentions and votes against him when he submits his fate to a vote of Conservatives in Parliament on July 4.

While Hurd, 65, had made known his desire to retire this summer, he said Friday that he decided to act now to remove himself as an issue in Major's campaign to retain the party leadership. Like all other Cabinet ministers who have spoken so far, he expressed firm support for Major.

The most mentioned possible replacement for Hurd is Malcolm Rifkind, now defense secretary.

As the dust settled Friday in the wake of Major's announcement, it became clear that he already has in place a hard-working campaign team that is busy organizing public statements of support and working on Conservative backbenchers.

His opponents on the right, by contrast, have been taken by surprise. They had not expected an opportunity to challenge Major until the fall. Friday, they met in search of a candidate. The center of speculation was Norman Lamont, a one-time Major ally who became a bitter enemy after the prime minister fired him as chancellor of the exchequer in 1993.