LONDON, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May named immigration minister Brandon Lewis chairman of her Conservative Party on Monday at the start of a reshuffle she hopes will re-energise an agenda hurt by divisions over Brexit and an ill-judged election.
May, weakened by the loss of the Conservative Party’s majority in an election gamble last June, moved to reshuffle her team of top ministers after ending last year with a deal to shift talks with the European Union to a second phase.
She is expected to keep her team’s ‘big beasts’ - her finance, Brexit, foreign and interior ministers - but may promote women, black and younger lawmakers to challenge critics who call her party “male, pale and stale”.
The reshuffle, which will last for most of Monday, is part of the 61-year-old’s attempts to reassert her authority over not only her party, but also parliament, where she depends on the support of a small Northern Irish party to pass laws, especially those needed for Britain’s departure from the EU bloc.
“I’m not a quitter. I’m in this for the long term,” May told the BBC on Sunday, a new mantra from a prime minister who has been mocked in the local media as a ‘Maybot’ for her dogged repetition of catchphrases and policy statements.
Despite winning agreement from the EU to push Brexit talks to a discussion of future trade relations and a transitional deal, May has been criticised at home for her approach to healthcare, housing and transport among other issues.
In an early blow, her minister for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, stepped down because of ill-health. He had been trying to help officials form a power-sharing government to avoid any return to violence between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists that scarred the province for decades.
But the biggest change so far was the appointment of Lewis to head the Conservative Party whose membership is plummeting after what many members acknowledge was a disastrous election campaign in June.
His appointment was almost derailed after the party was forced to delete a tweet congratulating transport minister Chris Grayling to the position, which members say has become increasingly important.
The main opposition Labour Party, under the leadership of leftist lawmaker Jeremy Corbyn, is enjoying some of the highest numbers of support in its history.
It will now fall to the 46-year-old Lewis to provide the leadership needed to attract younger voters and those in northern England if the governing party is to have a chance to win the next election in 2022.
Lewis, who is popular in the party and was a supporter of May’s leadership bid last year, will take over from veteran minister Patrick McLoughlin, who had been criticised by some members for failing to broaden the appeal of the party. (Additional reporting by William James, Alistair Smout; Editing by Richard Balmforth)