Theresa May has begun the biggest ministerial reshuffle since last year’s election, starting with a revamp of the Conservative party machine and the appointment of David Lidington, the pro-European justice secretary, as her de facto deputy.
As the reshuffle got under way at midday, Brandon Lewis, the 46-year-old immigration minister, was named the new Conservative chairman with a remit to revitalise the party’s grassroots organisation and sharpen attacks on Labour.
Mr Lidington, the 61-year-old former Europe minister, replaces Damian Green in the Cabinet Office, acting as the prime minister’s fixer and chairman of numerous cabinet committees, including those on Brexit implementation.
Although Mr Lidington will not inherit Mr Green’s “first secretary of state” title, he will stand in for Mrs May at prime minister’s questions and deploy his knowledge of European politics as the government develops its Brexit strategy.
In a blow for Mrs May, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire announced he was leaving the government to have surgery on a small lesion on his lung. The minister has been leading attempts to restore the power-sharing executive in Belfast.
Meanwhile, Downing Street confirmed Philip Hammond, chancellor, Amber Rudd, home secretary, and David Davis, Brexit secretary, would stay in their posts, amid signs the reshuffle would not see moves for Mrs May’s most senior ministers.
In a shake-up of the Conservative campaign machinery, Mr Lewis, a former council leader in Essex, replaces Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory chairman who first served as a minister under Margaret Thatcher.
Mr Lewis is regarded as a strong media performer with a common touch; his deputy will be James Cleverly, a media-savvy former Territorial Army officer. The appointment of Mr Cleverly, a black MP elected in 2015, was the first evidence of Mrs May’s plan to promote younger colleagues and improve the diversity of the party’s top management.
Mr Lewis’s appointment was accompanied by shambolic scenes. The Conservative party’s official Twitter account had incorrectly announced that the Tory chairman’s job was going to Chris Grayling, transport secretary; the tweet was swiftly deleted.
The sacking before Christmas of Damian Green, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, triggered a shake-up that is expected to continue throughout Monday and conclude with changes to the lower ranks on Tuesday.
Mrs May had earlier been urged to be “bold” by senior Tory MP George Freeman and use the shake-up to inject life into a government which has at times appeared paralysed by its tiny parliamentary majority, a shortage of money and a preoccupation with Brexit.
To reassure pro-Brexit Tory MPs that she intends to drive a hard bargain in Brussels in the second phase of exit talks, Mrs May is expected to task a minister with developing contingency plans in case talks fail and Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
Steve Baker, a leading Tory Eurosceptic and a junior minister in the Brexit department led by Mr Davis, could be given the role, with a right to attend cabinet.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons who ran against Mrs May for the Tory leadership in 2016, was one of those tipped for the sack.
Justine Greening, the education secretary who opposed Mrs May’s plans for a new wave of grammar schools, and Greg Clark, business secretary, are among those rumoured to be in the line of fire, although No 10 said reshuffle speculation was “guesswork”.
Mrs May’s team says she is determined to promote some of the party’s promising 2015 intake of MPs into the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder, with a particular focus on the promotion of women.
Tory MPs with a military background including Johnny Mercer and James Heappey are also tipped for promotion