Rishi Sunak finally has a new defence secretary. Grant Shapps is moving from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to replace Ben Wallace, who announced in July that he would be standing down as soon as a successor could be found and who formally resigned this morning. It will be the fifth cabinet job for Shapps in less than a year – including his six-day stint as home secretary in the final days of the Liz Truss administration.
In some ways, the choice makes sense. Shapps is a Sunak loyalist with years of experience at the top of government – a survivor of more than a decade of Tory psychodrama who has served in the cabinets of four of the past five prime ministers. He is particularly well-known for his “spreadsheet”, which he has used to keep tabs on Conservative MPs and predict future rebellions, and for being a canny political communicator – both of which will prove useful for Sunak.
There have been certain areas of overlap between his most recent role, as energy secretary, and his new job at the Ministry of Defence. In the six months since the new energy department was created, Shapps has focused on the UK’s energy security and resilience in light of Russian aggression in Europe. He also paid an official visit to Ukraine last week to highlight the UK’s continued support of fuel for the country’s nuclear power plants. Unsurprisingly, in his first statement as Defence Secretary Shapps pledged to “continue the UK’s support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion”.
However, the response from the UK’s defence community has been mixed. Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, was lukewarm in his comments to the BBC, saying: “It was always going to be a caretaker appointment from now until the election. Shapps is a great caretaker.” General Richard Dannatt, former chief of the general staff, highlighted Shapps’s lack of experience in this area, telling Sky News: “It is a complex portfolio, it will take him quite some time to get up to speed.”
Other defence industry professionals, speaking to the New Statesman on the condition of anonymity, were far more scathing about the appointment of an inexperienced Sunak loyalist to such an important role, and what it says about the Prime Minister’s priorities.
“At a time of heightened global uncertainty, with our adversaries throwing huge amounts of time, effort and money into increasingly advanced capabilities, we need the Ministry of Defence to be led by someone who understands the technical shift we are seeing, and who wants to advocate for this at home, not someone whose priority is to keep an increasingly desperate Prime Minister happy,” said one senior representative in the defence industry.
Another vented: “The appointment of a defence secretary with no knowledge of, nor seemingly interest in, defence is a damning indictment of a Prime Minister who doesn’t care about our armed forces, or the increasingly unstable world we live in. The fact that Rishi is the MP for the UK’s largest military base [Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire] only reinforces that he cares about nothing but himself.”
“I doubt he [Shapps] knows how to fire a rifle, let alone deal with the growing issues facing a beleaguered procurement system and a woefully under-funded armed forces,” quipped a third.
Not everyone has been quite so damning of the appointment. A recent British Army veteran, now working in the defence industry, was positive about the Defence Secretary’s “back catalogue from industry, housing, international development, business and energy security – all of which have a huge impact on the people or outcomes of UK defence”. He stressed the value to the defence community of Shapps’s “loyalty and perceived safety”, continuing “at a testing time for UK defence to have a dependable ally of the PM is good news in the run towards an election next year”.
Still, at a time when war has returned to Europe and the threat of nuclear escalation is greater than it’s been since the end of the Cold War, the role of UK defence secretary is a hugely prominent one. And Sunak’s decision to overlook those with more specific expertise in favour of a personal ally could prove reckless.
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