Nikki Kaye and Gerry Brownlee are the big winners in a Cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Bill English this afternoon.

As expected, Kaye is the new Education Minister, replacing Hekia Parata.

Brownlee has been made Foreign Affairs Minister in place of Murray McCully, who has held the portfolio for eight years.

Rodney MP Mark Mitchell has also received a significant promotion, to Defence Minister, and has been moved into the Cabinet just months after he was made a minister outside Cabinet.

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Backbenchers Scott Simpson and Tim Macindoe have been promoted to ministerial roles. Simpson takes on the Statistics portfolio while Macindoe will become Customs Minister.

Social Housing Minister Amy Adams will take on further housing roles, including responsibility for the Government's overall house-building programme - a job previously done by Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith.

Labour's housing spokesman Phil Twyford described the move as "the orchestra playing on as National's Titanic housing crisis slips below the waves".

Prime Minister Bill English has just announced the new Cabinet lineup he will take into September’s general election.

English rejected any suggestion Smith had been demoted, saying it was a practical step to consolidate all of the housing roles under one minister.

The reshuffle marks a significant comeback for Kaye, who stepped down from ministerial duties late last year to get treatment for breast cancer. She returned to Parliament after the summer break and has now been given a major portfolio.

As Associate Education Minister, Kaye was well placed to take over the education portfolio, English said. She had a particular interest in the subject and brought energy and enthusiasm to the role.

English said Brownlee's appointment in the foreign affairs portfolio was a long-term one, and not just a stop-gap until the election.

"Gerry's the guy we want as Foreign Minister," he said.

Brownlee's temperament was not an obstacle to him taking on a diplomatic role, English said. The minister had shown he could be both blunt and diplomatic in his work on the Christchurch rebuild.

Speaking about Mitchell's promotion, English said the MP had ably steered the Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee and had a "fairly unique" background relevant to the portfolio - a reference to his past work as a security contractor in the Middle East.

Brownlee has given up all of his previous portfolios except his responsibility for the Earthquake Commission. Nicky Wagner will take over his Christchurch recovery role but will remain a minister outside Cabinet. Nathan Guy will take on civil defence and Simon Bridges will become Leader of the House.

English paid tribute to the outgoing ministers Parata and McCully, who are giving up their portfolios because they are quitting politics at the September election.

English said Parata's "relentless focus on student achievement" had "changed the conversation about learning in all of our schools" and driven sharp rises in achievement, especially for Maori and Pacific students.

McCully had improved existing relationships and developed new ones while running "a truly independent foreign policy for New Zealand".

The reshuffle winners
• Mark Mitchell (Defence Minister)

The Rodney MP's rapid rise continues into Cabinet as he picks up the major defence portfolio from Brownlee.

Only recently made a minister when he picked up Land Information, Statistics and Associate Minister of Justice in a reshuffle in December, Mitchell is a former policeman who joined Parliament in 2011 in the safe National seat of Rodney.

Before Parliament, he also worked as a private security contractor, living in Kuwait, and was involved in hostage negotiations in Afghanistan, Somalia and Darfur. English today said that background helped qualify Mitchell for his new role.

Mitchell has chaired the Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee, which recently considered the Trans Pacific Partnership legislation, and there was speculation he could be an outside chance to replace Murray McCully.

Mitchell has politics in the blood - his grandfather Frank Gill represented National in East Coast Bays and his father ran for mayor in Rodney.

He is married to Peggy Bourne, the widow of rally driver Possum Bourne, and celebrated his promotion last year with fish and chips with his large family, posting the details to Twitter: a dozen fish and 15 potato fritters. An even bigger order could be going in tonight.

NOW: Defence Minister, Land Information Minister, Associate Justice Minister.
WAS: Land Information Minister, Statistics Minister, Associate Justice Minister.
• Gerry Brownlee (Foreign Minister)

Brownlee's role as Defence Minister has given him international affairs experience, including on issues such as the South China Sea dispute and efforts to combat Isis in Iraq.

His experience has now seen him elevated to become Foreign Minister, in a time of global uncertainty and increasing tension between the US and Syria and its allies and North Korea.

It remains to be seen how long Brownlee, MP for Ilam since 1996, will be Foreign Minister, even if National return to power after September's election - if New Zealand First leader Winston Peters holds the balance of power he could demand the portfolio for Shane Jones.

English today said it was his expectation that Brownlee would remain in the role should National return to power.

NOW: Foreign Minister, Minister Responsible for the Earthquake Commission.
WAS: Civil Defence Minister, Defence Minister, Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration, Leader of the House, Minister Responsible for Earthquake Commission.
• Nikki Kaye (Education Minister)

Has coveted the role of Education Minister since entering Parliament in 2008, and now has it after returning to Parliament this year following breast cancer treatment.

Was the obvious choice given her work as Associate Education Minister since January 2013, which has included overhauling how school property is managed and the construction of new schools and classrooms as Auckland's population booms.

Has stood at Hekia Parata's shoulder during recent media standup and now takes over reforms that are the biggest since 1989 and are only partially complete.

If National are re-elected, Kaye will be in charge when debate and opposition really heat up when proposals such as replacing the decile system with targeted funding for "at risk" students come closer to reality in 2020. In the meantime, Labour will go after education and new minister in election year.

NOW: Education Minister, Youth Minister.
WAS: Youth Minister, Associate Education Minister.
• Tim Macindoe (Customs Minister)

Hamilton West MP since 2008 and National's senior whip since 2014, Macindoe has been appointed a minister outside of Cabinet and becomes Customs Minister.

That role had been held by Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner, who has taken Minister Supporting Greater Christchurch Regeneration from Brownlee.

NOW: Customs Minister, Associate Education Minister, Associate Transport Minister.
• Scott Simpson (Statistics Minister)

Awarded ministerial responsibilities along with Macindoe, Simpson is now Statistics Minister as well as Associate Environment Minister and Associate Immigration Minister.

Simpson was elected as Coromandel MP in 2011, having previously been the chief executive of the Make-A-Wish New Zealand charity.

NOW: Statistics Minister, Associate Environment Minister, Associate Immigration Minister.