Grant Shapps replaces Ben Wallace as defence secretary – but top military brass ask if he’s up to the job

By Isaac M September 1, 2023

Grant Shapps was urged to be willing to defy his “mate” Rishi Sunak and push for greater military spending after he was revealed as the surprise replacement for Ben Wallace as defence secretary.

Military chiefs and MPs questioned his appointment during a mini-reshuffle on Thursday – saying they feared Mr Shapps was a “yes man” who had been given the job to avoid “rocking the boat” at pre-election budgets.

Defence figures in Whitehall also questioned his military experience at a “dangerous period” in the Ukraine war. Mr Shapps takes up his fifth cabinet role in less than a year, having assumed a series of jobs in the whirlwind of Boris Johnson’s final months and Liz Truss’s short-lived spell at No 10.

Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the armed forces, expressed his concern that he had been given the job to “support” Mr Sunak rather than “make the case” for defence spending.

Lord Dannatt told Sky News: “Will he really understand and make the case for defence … or will he be more political and support the prime minister for party political purposes? Ben Wallace was arguing for [defence investment]. Is that discussion going to continue? Or will Grant Shapps choose to go quietly?”

Sir Richard also said Mr Shapps knows “very little about defence” and it will take him “quite some time to get up to speed”, adding that there was a risk the debate on resources for defence now “stagnates”.

Admiral Lord West – the former chief of UK naval staff – told The Independent: “It’s a surprising appointment. He’s obviously great mates with Sunak. I fear he is putting him in so he will not create any waves by demanding extra money for defence, which is very much needed.”

Lord West added: “I think it was designed to get someone who won’t rock the boat or upset the apple cart, particularly with an election coming next year. Will Grant Shapps fight that corner? I have my doubts about that. He doesn’t have a particularly brilliant background in defence. That’s my worry.”

Grant Shapps made a visit to a Ukrainian power station last week

(PA Media)

Tory MP Mark Francois – a former armed forces minister – has said many people at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not want Mr Shapps to get the job.

“Many people in the building wanted James [Heappey] to get the job – he hasn’t,” Mr Francois told GB News. He added: “Grant Shapps is a bright bloke, but he’s going to have to come up with the speed very, very quickly … this is going to be a very steep learning curve.”

Defence figures in government have also raised eyebrows. One officer, currently in Whitehall who had served with Nato, told The Independent: “We are now in one the most dangerous period in decades with the Ukraine war and also at a time the forces are having to cope with more challenges with less money.

“This is a time to have someone in charge of the department with knowledge of defence to deal with complex issues. Instead we’ve got someone who’ll need to ‘learn on the job’, and that’s worrying.”

Senior Tory MP Julian Lewis, former chair of the defence select committee, has encouraged Mr Shapps to push the Treasury for as much money as possible to reverse a relative decline in spending on the military.

“Defence expenditure under successive governments has declined in comparison with other priorities,’’ Mr Lewis told The Independent. “The new defence secretary should use all his powers of persuasion to build on the foundations laid by Ben Wallace in light of the considerable threats we face.”

Grant Shapps arriving at No 10 on Thursday to get new job

(Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Claire Coutinho – the junior education minister and Sunak loyalist – will take over from Mr Shapps as energy secretary. Another Sunak ally from the 2019 intake, David Johnston, takes up her old job at the education department.

Mr Wallace revealed last month that he would resign at the next reshuffle. Officially stepping down on Thursday, he had a parting message for Mr Sunak on defence spending. “We must not return to the days where defence was viewed as a discretionary spend by government and savings were achieved by hollowing out,” he said in his letter.

Speaking shortly after his resignation, Mr Wallace told The Independent that he would continue to champion the cause of Afghans who helped the British armed forces – with thousands still waiting to hear if they will be accepted for relocation under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap).

Mr Wallace said: “From the start, I said that Arap is not time-limited. Our obligation to these people will endure. Wherever there is an opportunity to bring these people back, we should explore it and do so. We have already brought back thousands and these people are now living fulfilling lives in the UK. We stand by our word.”

Mr Wallace added: “I will still stand for increased investment in defence, the fight for Ukraine and fulfilling our commitments to people who supported us, like Arap. That’s not changing.”

Rishi Sunak thanked Ben Wallace for his four years of service in the job

(PA Archive)

Despite Armed Forces minister James Heappey and Treasury minister John Glen being favourites for his job, Mr Shapps began to be linked with the role after making a trip to Ukraine last week.

The Sunak ally said that he was “honoured” to succeed Mr Wallace and paid tribute to the “enormous contribution” he had made to UK’s security over the past four years in the job.

Mr Shapps also said he was “looking forward to working with the brave men and women of our armed forces” and “continuing the UK’s support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion”.

Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey congratulated Mr Shapps but added: “After 13 years of Tory defence failures, a change at the top will not change this record.”

The Liberal Democrats said Mr Sunak had appointed a “yes man” in a crucial role. The party’s defence spokesperson Richard Foord said: “This is Shapps’ fifth cabinet role in less than a year. The Conservative government merry-go-round has to stop.”

Mr Sunak has given a major promotion to Ms Coutinho – a former special adviser at the Treasury when he was there – by appointing her energy secretary while the West is still reeling from the price shock caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The loyalist’s arrival comes amid accusations that Mr Sunak and his ministers are rowing back on net zero commitments – with critics hitting out at plans to grant new licences for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

Labour’s shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said “reshuffling of the deckchairs will not deliver the proper energy policy Britain needs” and said Ms Coutinho “needs to recognise that Grant Shapps’ approach has been a disaster”.

Mr Johnson paid tribute to the outgoing defence secretary, calling him a “fine defence secretary” and describing Mr Shapps as “an excellent choice to succeed him”. Mr Sunak praised Mr Wallace in a reply letter, telling him he leaves office with “thanks and respect”.

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