OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird resigned on Tuesday in a surprise move that leaves the Conservative government without one of its most capable politicians as it heads into an October election in which it faces a tough fight against a revitalized Liberal Party.
Baird's resignation came amid talk of a split with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office over Russia policy, but Baird, 45, said it was simply time to start a new chapter in his life, and he paid warm tribute to Harper.
Political sources told Reuters his relations with Harper's office had deteriorated in recent months. Sources said he had pushed for Ottawa to slap sanctions on allies of President Vladimir Putin who had business ties with Canada. The minister was overruled by Harper's office.
Baird, a fiercely partisan figure, has been one of Harper's most tireless lieutenants and was popular inside the party. He is an experienced campaigner who would have played a major role in Conservative election strategy.
Polls show the Conservatives neck-and-neck with the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, the son of longtime Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and that they will almost certainly lose their majority in Parliament in the October election.
Baird became foreign minister in May 2011 and had been particularly critical of Russia over its involvement in Ukraine and was a strong defender of Israel. He had been working to get Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy released from an Egyptian jail, where Fahmy has been imprisoned on charges including spreading lies to help "a terrorist organization".
Egypt could free Fahmy within hours, Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera English reported on Tuesday.
Baird had been a member of cabinet from the day the Conservatives took power in early 2006, occupying several key roles. In 2009, Canadian media reported he had caused a brief stir by sending a text message announcing "Thatcher has died". It quickly emerged he had been referring to his cat, not the politician.
In a statement, Harper said he had accepted Baird's resignation "with great regret," and cabinet colleagues said they had no idea Baird was planning such an abrupt departure.
Trade Minister Ed Fast will take over as foreign minister temporarily until Harper appoints a replacement for Baird. Among those seen as contenders for the job are Employment Minister Jason Kenney, Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who is a former diplomat.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway