An earlier than expected change at the top of Unite will lead the UK’s biggest union to take a harder line in its confrontation with British Airways and put strikes next Easter firmly on the agenda.

Unite joint general secretary Tony Woodley will step down at the end of December half way through a fresh strike ballot at BA, Travel Weekly understands. Woodley had been expected to stay on until the end of 2011 and continue to head talks with the airline.

But Travel Weekly understands Woodley will stand down a year early – meaning a change of leadership on both sides of the dispute as BA chief executive Willie Walsh will relinquish day-to-day control of the airline in January.

Unite will be led instead by the recently elected Len McCluskey, who was not due to take over as sole general secretary until 2012.

McCluskey has been the union’s lead negotiator with BA through a dispute that led to an unprecedented 22 days of strikes this year. However, Woodley has led face-to-face meetings with Walsh and it was Woodley who, in October, agreed a deal later rejected by cabin crew representatives.

Walsh has repeatedly said he felt able to deal with Woodley and the airline expected that relationship to continue under new BA chief executive Keith Williams. But Woodley will play no further role unless a deal is reached in the next few days.

In a statement this week BA accused Unite of reneging on the recent deal, saying: “The union continues to be riven by internal divisions.” Woodley stepping down may signal an end to that.

Walsh will move to head BA’s new parent company, International Airlines Group, formed from the merger with Spanish carrier Iberia in mid-January.

There has been speculation his departure would lead to a softening of BA’s line on removal of travel concessions and disciplinary action against striking crew, which is now the focus of the dispute.

Senior Union figures have said they view Williams as more conciliatory. However, sources within BA have dismissed this.

Everything will hinge on the result of the current ballot, due to begin next Tuesday and end on January 21. Strikes could resume a week later.

Any majority for action seems likely to result in renewed strikes by cabin crew, with McCluskey having already signalled he does not share the previous leadership’s reluctance to target peak holiday periods – including Easter and the weekend of the Royal wedding in April.