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May to reshuffle govt in new year reboot as Brexit looms

LONDON, Jan 8, 2018 (BSS/AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May will begin reshuffling her cabinet Monday in a bid to reassert authority after a torrid 2017 in which she lost her working majority and several ministers to scandals.

The long-awaited shake-up arrives ahead of another year of potentially bruising battles over Brexit, as talks with the European Union enter a key new phase amid continued divisions in the Conservative party.

It also comes as the prime minister tries to reset her leadership in the face of a resurgent opposition Labour party, which exceeded expectations in the snap election May called -- and nearly lost -- last summer.

Labour has started the new year attacking her government's handling of the crisis-hit health service and railways.

The reshuffle is not expected to result in any high-profile sackings, with foreign minister and Brexit proponent Boris Johnson, pro-EU finance minister Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis all set to keep their jobs.

May has limited political capital for bold moves and cannot afford to upset the pro- and anti-EU balance of her cabinet following the loss of her parliamentary majority in the last election and persistent internal turmoil over Brexit and her leadership.

The reboot is nonetheless predicted to be the biggest overhaul of her team since she took power in July 2016, with reports of up to a quarter of cabinet roles impacted.

Several ministers may receive promotions, while a handful of MPs are anticipated to join the cabinet.

The Daily Telegraph reported that May will name a "cabinet minister for no deal" to be based alongside Davis in the department for exiting the EU.

The new minister will provide regular updates on preparation for leaving the bloc without a trade deal and have "a significant budget", the paper said.

The role was an attempt to show Brussels that London "was serious about leaving the EU without a deal if talks fail", it added.

- Embattled May -

The need for a reshuffle grew as deputy prime minister Damian Green stepped down last month over a pornography scandal, following the autumn departures of ministers Michael Fallon and Priti Patel, who became embroiled in separate controversies.

May confirmed on Sunday that she would be making ministerial changes, but refused to disclose details.

"Damian Green's departure before Christmas means that some changes do have to be made, and I will be making some changes," she told the BBC. "It will be soon."

Last year's flurry of high-profile resignations triggered repeated calls for a reshuffle, which until now went unheeded.

An embattled May first needed to navigate the fraught opening round of Brexit talks as cabinet colleagues battled in the background, with an eye on succeeding her.

However, after successfully moving the EU negotiations to the next stage focused on Britain's future relationship with the bloc, she now appears on a firmer political footing.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt may take over Green's expansive role, but this move could be postponed by a winter crisis in the health service.

Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth was scornful of the prospect of Hunt as deputy prime minister.

"They should be demoting this health secretary," he said in a TV interview criticising Hunt's performance.

- 'Not a quitter' -

Conservative party chairman Patrick McLoughlin will lose his job, with his replacement ordered to overhaul party operations in the wake of last year's election losses, according to The Times.

It has also been reported that Justine Greening, the education minister, and Business Secretary Greg Clark could be moved to other positions in the cabinet.

Meanwhile Dominic Raab, justice minister and an ardent Brexit supporter, is tipped to be in line for a top job.

May is also predicted to promote more women and MPs from ethnic minorities as she tries to counter an alleged culture of sexual harassment in Westminster and criticism her party is too narrowly representative of multicultural Britain.

The year ahead promises to be fraught for a prime minister who has lurched from crisis to crisis for months.

But May told the BBC Sunday that she still hoped to lead her Tory party into the next election, which must be called by 2022.

"I'm not a quitter. I'm in this for the long term," she said.

"Obviously I serve as long as people want me to serve."