In a minor cabinet reorganisation, Grant Shapps was picked to succeed Ben Wallace as defence secretary, raising concerns about Shapps’ lack of relevant experience and the recent turnover of ministers.
Shapps will now have his fifth cabinet position in the last 12 months as a result of the change, which saw the 2019-intake MP Claire Coutinho take over as secretary for energy security and net zero.
Another 2019 candidate, David Johnston, took up Coutinho’s position as children’s minister. Johnston is the sixth person to hold that position in the previous four years.
Shapps, a crucial supporter of Rishi Sunak, is seen as a safe pair of hands who will calm down the often tense relationship that existed between No. 10 and the Ministry of Defence during Wallace’s tenure.
Some Conservative MPs and former service leaders were alarmed by the decision and expressed concern about Shapps’s lack of first-hand experience in foreign policy, defence, and security.
Former chief of the general staff Richard Dannatt, who is now a cross-bench peer, told Sky News that while Wallace “understood defence well,” it would be a challenging job for Shapps, who over the previous 12 months has also held the posts of business secretary, home secretary (for a week under Liz Truss), and transport secretary.
“Now we have a new defence secretary who knows very little about defence – and it’s a complex portfolio, it will take him quite some time to get up to speed,” Lord Dannatt said.
Shapps experienced “a very steep learning curve,” according to Mark Francois, a Conservative lawmaker and member of the Commons defence committee, and many lawmakers had anticipated and desired James Heappey, the junior defence minister, to be elevated.
“Grant Shapps is a bright bloke but he’s going to have to come up with the speed very, very quickly,” Francois told GB News.
As part of a much-debated reset before a general election that is scheduled for next year, there had been anticipation that Sunak could make further significant changes to his government over the summer. Now, the autumn is more likely to see this occur.
Shapps’ promotion to a more senior position demonstrates Sunak’s confidence in him as an accomplished minister and communicator who will likely be used more frequently to criticise Labour as an election approaches.
Shapps expressed his gratitude for the appointment and praised Wallace for his “enormous contribution” over the previous four years to UK defence and international security.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the new defence secretary said: “I am looking forward to working with the brave men and women of our armed forces who defend our nation’s security. And continuing the UK’s support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion.”
Coutinho becomes the first MP elected in 2019 to be promoted to the cabinet.
Wallace was replaced by a high-profile Tory with military experience, but Downing Street was hesitant to do so. Sources expressed concern that individuals like Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt, who have both served in the military, “would use the job to campaign for the leadership” if Sunak loses the upcoming election.
Under the condition of anonymity, a Whitehall insider expressed doubt about the selection of Shapps, saying, “The MoD has a really serious challenge about making ends meet while needing to transform to match a far more serious threat. The current trend towards the next election will probably be made worse by this, they predicted.
Nevertheless, a different former senior security official who had previously worked with Shapps described the new defence secretary as a seasoned professional who remained “steady when things were hot,” and they emphasised that he would have to deal with many sensitive issues in his new job, often requiring a swift response to apparent aggression.
The Trident nuclear programme, its capabilities, and potential effects are first explained to new defence secretary, albeit the decision to use the missiles ultimately rests with the current prime minister. Additionally, they are informed of their authority to use force as well as, over a longer period of time, potential threats from Russia, China, other unfriendly nations, and international terrorism.
Shapps briefly ran for Tory Party leader in the recent summer’s election to succeed Boris Johnson. He was unable to get enough votes, however, to be included on the MPs’ ballot.
Shapps argued that increasing defence spending to 3% of GDP would ensure that “freedom is not free” in his presentation to Tory backbenchers. Nato advises a minimum of 2%, while Sunak has committed to a long-term target of 2.5%.
Wallace referred to Sunak’s frequent disagreements with him on defence spending in his letter of resignation to the prime minister. “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,” Wallace wrote.