Sunak expected to appoint new defence secretary to replace Ben Wallace

By Isaac M August 31, 2023

Rishi Sunak is expected to name Ben Wallace’s replacement as defence secretary – as speculation mounts that the top cabinet role could go to someone “unexpected”.

Mr Wallace revealed last month he would resign at the next reshuffle. He officially stepped down on Thursday – saying he had put the Ministry of Defence “back on the path to being world class”.

The PM is now set to appoint a new defence secretary in a mini-reshuffle. Armed Forces minister James Heappey and chief secretary to the Treasury John Glen have both been heavily linked with the role.

But the Daily Telegraph has claimed ex-defence secretary Liam Fox – forced out of the job a decade ago over a scandal involving his best man – is a possibility. Commentator Iain Dale said Mr Wallace’s replacement would be “rather unexpected”.

Energy secretary Grant Shapps is a surprise contender for the job, according to the Financial Times, while Commons Penny Mordaunt, security minister Tom Tugendhat and Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin have also been mentioned.

The Independent takes a closer look at the runners and riders to replace Mr Wallace as Mr Sunak shuffles his pack before a full “reset” of his premiership later in the autumn.

James Heappey

Mr Heappey is seen as one of the strong favourites for the top job, having served as Armed Forces minister since February 2020. He also served in the Army, reaching the rank of major in a 10-year career in the Rifles – serving on operations in Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Iraq.

Armed Forces minister James Heappey

(PA)

View as a safe pair of hands for media appearances, he has also been loyal to Mr Wallace and the department in battles with the Treasury over defence spending.

Mr Wallace appeared to endorse his junior minister for the job, using one of his final Commons appearances to praise Mr Heappey. The outgoing defence secretary said he had understanding of what “needs most attention” and noted the need for “continuity”.

Liam Fox

Dr Fox served in the defence role under David Cameron between 2010 and 2011. But was forced to resign after allowing his friend and best man Adam Werritty to take on an undeclared role as his aide. Mr Werritty had been handing our business cards as a Fox adviser.

The senior Tory Brexiteer – also trade secretary between 2016 and 2019 – backed Mr Sunak in last summer’s Conservative leadership race, so an appointment would be seen as reward for his loyalty at a crucial time. But it would also raise eyebrows when loyal servants with more recent government experience area available.

Dr Liam Fox has been out of government for four years

(PA Archive)

John Glen

Mr Glen was another key supporter of Mr Sunak during the leadership contest. He remains a respected figure at the Treasury, having served as City minister when Mr Sunak was at No 11 and moving up to become Jeremy Hunt’s deputy as Treasury secretary in October.

The One Nation Tory moderate appears to want the job, having taken an interest in defence matters in recent months. He led the media round on behalf of the government when Wagner boss Yvgeny Prigozhin led a brief rebellion in Russia.

Penny Mordaunt

Now best known for her role wielding a ceremonial sword at the King’s coronation, Ms Mordaunt did briefly serve as defence secretary in 2019. The Portsmouth MP also served in the Royal Naval Reserve for almost a decade.

She made the most of her military background during the Tory leadership contest – when she narrowly missed out to Liz Truss in making the final two. Mr Sunak may see her as too much of a rival to hand her the role which has made Mr Wallace so popular.

Commons leader Penny Mordaunt

(PA Wire)

Tom Tugendhat

The security minister has taken a keen interest in defence matters, having led the foreign affairs select committee for five years. He has little government experience, but raised his profile considerably by being the flagbearer of the One Nation Tory moderates during last summer’s leadership contests.

Grant Shapps

The energy secretary is a surprise contender – named by the FT as a possibility for the role if Mr Sunak decides he needs someone with experience in top jobs. Mr Shapps visited Ukraine last week – posting a video of his trip on X.

Energy secretary Grant Shapps

(PA Wire)

Jeremy Quin

The Cabinet Office minister is viewed as a safe pair of hands. He previously served as defence procurement minister under Boris Johnson, as well as having the crime and policing minister job under Liz Truss’ short-lived reign at No 10. The moderate Remainer was a key supporter of Mr Sunak during last year’s contests.

Meanwhile, in a departing letter to the PM on Thursday, Mr Wallace said the Ministry of Defence was “back on the path to being once again world class” and said respect for the UK’s armed forces had “only grown more since the war in Ukraine”.

Rishi Sunak thanked Ben Wallace as he left the job on Thursday

(PA Archive)

In a warning not to cut the defence budget, he added: “I know you agree with me that we must not return to the days where defence was viewed as a discretionary spend by government and savings were achieved by hollowing out.”

Mr Sunak praised Mr Wallace in a reply letter, telling him he leaves office with “thanks and respect”.

Mr Wallace, who served under three prime ministers in his current role, played a key role in the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was a close ally of Boris Johnson.

“I went into politics in the Scottish parliament in 1999. That’s 24 years. I’ve spent well over seven years with three phones by my bed,” he said last month on his desire to leave Westminster.

Seen as popular among Tory members, he was at one time seen as a potential leadership contender, regularly topping the poll of most popular ministers with ConservativeHome surveys of the party’s grassroots.

He ruled himself out of the running for the Conservative leadership last year despite being an early frontrunner in the race to replace Mr Johnson.

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