Politics in Westminster has changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A few months ago, in what feels like almost another era, we were in the throes of partygate: taking the temperature of Conservative backbenchers, watching Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss quietly jostle to succeed Boris Johnson and wondering whether it would take weeks or months for the inevitable leadership contest to be triggered. You would have been forgiven, then, for not thinking of Ben Wallace as a likely contender to succeed Johnson. In fact, a few months ago, you might not even have heard of the Defence Secretary.
So much has shifted in a few short weeks. The open jostling to replace Johnson has ended and his position is secure — for now. Conservatives are in agreement that this is no time, while war rages in Europe, to engage in the frivolities of a leadership contest. But the underlying consensus hasn’t gone away: confidence in Johnson in the country has taken a considerable hit, and he probably still can’t, or shouldn’t, contest the next election.
The competition to succeed him as Conservative leader has changed form in response to the seriousness of this political moment, but it is still there. And in that changed landscape has emerged a new contender. Wallace has impressed colleagues with his competent and statesmanlike response to the war in Ukraine. Now they are asking whether he, an unexpected leadership figure at a time of war, could be the next leader of the Conservative Party and country.
Wallace’s approach to the crisis in Ukraine, and his entire approach to politics, is informed by his military background. When he was a young boy his father, who served in the King’s Dragoon Guards in Malaya, used to take him on visits to the Tank Museum at Bovington military base in Dorset. Wallace, now 51, left school at 18 and, after a short stint as a ski instructor in Austria, went to Sandhurst military academy before joining the Scots Guards. As a young officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles he earned a mention in dispatches, a sign of distinguished service or bravery, for thwarting an IRA bomb plot, including finding the bomb itself. “I remember opening the bag to find the bomb in it,” he recalled to Nick Robinson’s podcast in late 2019. “There it was right in my face. I remember the police officer next to me said, ‘It’s the effing real thing’.” He punctured an eyeball during his time in Belfast too, which involved finding himself, a British soldier and obvious IRA target, on a hospital ward on the Falls Road in Catholic West Belfast (“a bit scary”, he admitted to Robinson).
Wallace rose to captain in the Scots Guards and, motivated by his experiences in the army, decided to enter politics. “I saw men from some of the toughest estates in the United Kingdom serve our country, and they deserved better governance, and better recognition for their efforts,” he has said. He entered politics in Scotland, at a time when the Conservatives were at a low ebb there, earning the nickname “Captain Fantastic” from the Herald newspaper for his dogged optimism while a Conservative list member of the Scottish parliament, representing North East Scotland. He then moved to Lancashire and stood for parliament, becoming the MP for Wyre and Preston North in May 2005. He was parliamentary private secretary to Ken Clarke, with whom he has a close relationship, and he served as securities minister.
In 2014, while Johnson was still Mayor of London, Wallace urged him to stand for the party leadership. Wallace is in a small crew of “true believers” — along with Nigel Adams, Amanda Milling, Nadine Dorries and Jake Berry (who has since become more critical of the Prime Minister) — who supported Johnson from the beginning and stuck by him during the wilderness years. Wallace ran Johnson’s botched leadership campaign after the Brexit referendum, and delivered a devastating attack on Michael Gove when he sabotaged the campaign, forcing Johnson to bow out.
“Michael seems to have an emotional need to gossip, particularly when drink is taken, as it all too often seemed to be,” Wallace said. “UK citizens deserve to know that when they go to sleep at night their secrets and their nation’s secrets aren’t shared in the newspaper column of the prime minister’s wife the next day, or traded away with newspaper proprietors over fine wine.” Wallace’s critics would note the irony of his remarks, given his reputation now for regularly briefing the press and maintaining cosy relationships with certain journalists.
Wallace’s judgement about Johnson’s ability to connect with certain parts of the country proved to be correct. After the 2019 general election landslide under Johnson’s leadership, he made a throwaway — but telling — remark about Johnson’s “new best friends”, the sudden converts to the Boris cause who hadn’t always been so loyal. But Wallace’s loyalty paid off, and Johnson appointed him Defence Secretary — a dream job for a proud military man.
Wallace’s understanding of the complexities of defence has shone through in the crisis over Ukraine, as has his cavalier, blokeish approach, relishing the opportunity to tell colleagues that the British army could “kick the backsides” of the Russians, and that Vladimir Putin had gone “full tonto”. He drew criticism for a comment before the invasion that the European approach to Russian had “the whiff of Munich” but he has, in general, impressed figures within his party and across the House with his seriousness and attention to detail at this time of crisis.
In a cabinet full of peacocks like Sunak, Truss and Johnson himself, Wallace has won credit among Tory backbenchers for apparently resisting attempts at self-promotion. Yet, for all that they think “he just gets on with the job”, as one puts it, it would be wrong to assume that Wallace isn’t quietly posturing for the top job in his own way.
“Ben’s always on manoeuvres,” someone close to a rival cabinet minister says with a roll of the eyes. Look closely and Wallace has had his fair share of rivalries and disagreements with cabinet colleagues, including Brandon Lewis over legacy proposals for Northern Ireland, and Dominic Raab and Priti Patel over Afghanistan. When Wallace tweeted that he would be cancelling his planned weekend away with his family to focus on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, the dig at Raab was obvious. Even cabinet colleagues with whom Wallace maintains a warm personal relationship admit he is difficult to work with.
Another rivalry appears to be with Truss, the Foreign Secretary, the other person in cabinet at the forefront of the UK’s Ukraine response, who also has her eye on Johnson’s job. While Wallace is supposedly focused on the task at hand, someone with uncanny familiarity with his thinking has apparently found time to give an eager, detailed account to the Sunday Times of his foresight in calling on government colleagues to supply arms to Ukraine, with obvious side-swipes at Foreign Office officials and his colleagues on the National Security Council. Truss and her predecessor, Raab, were clearly in the frame of criticism even if they were not named explicitly.
That Sunday Times account contained a glowing quotation from a “No 10 official”: “Ben Wallace has been brilliant. Last March he was saying we needed to do this and he came up against a machine that said either they weren’t needed or we were handing an excuse to the Russians.” Some in government have said that they wouldn’t be surprised if that quote had originated from the Prime Minister himself. It begs the question as to whether Wallace might be emerging as Johnson’s chosen successor. Recent pressure from Wallace on Sunak to increase defence funding has opened up yet another front in the battle to succeed Johnson.
As for the kind of leader he would be, Wallace has a handy mission statement on his website, outlining his politics. “I am a firm believer in small government,” he writes. “People and communities should be left alone by Whitehall which too often tries to impose a one size fits all approach to life. I trust teachers, health workers, police and parents to know what is best for them. Government should be in the business of rewarding aspiration and not in the business of protecting privilege. It should stand up for those who live by the rules”. But he has also previously said that he and Johnson are “both on the left of the party”.
It may well be a while before Wallace sets out his stall in earnest, but his stock is rising among colleagues. He may not have the Instagram presence of Truss or the “Rishi”-signatured graphics of the Chancellor, but his picture on the government website has been quietly changed to one of him in military uniform, the war leader with perhaps hopes of becoming party leader. He may be getting on with the job, and earning plaudits for doing so, but it would be wrong to think that he, or at least those around him, don’t have their sights set on something else too.
This article was corrected on 29 March 2022 to state that Ben Wallace became the MP for Wyre and Preston North in May 2005.