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LONDON — With The exit of Ben Wallace According to the British Defense Secretary on Thursday, the original power duo who fought for Ukraine are now gone.
While Boris Johnson has earned grudging respect around the world for his rapid response to the Russian invasion – and his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – Johnson’s old pal Wallace has also been praised for stepping up. stood behind him and did much of the legwork.
Now Wallace’s replacement at the MoD, Grant Shapps, must show he is just as tough.
Shapps is a well-established figure at the top of British politics, but he still represents a surprise choice for defense secretary. Except for a junior role at the Department for International Development, he has held only national portfolios during a long career that began in 2010 under David Cameron.
The former Secretary of State for Business and Energy is also one of only three ministers without military experience to have taken on the UK’s most senior defense roles in the past 13 years.
At the same time, Shapps’ close allegiance to Rishi Sunak and his extensive dealings with Ukraine signal a message of cautious continuity.
“Shapps took an active interest in the Ukraine conflict and described his previous roles in energy and business as very outward-looking,” said Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the think tank. Policy Exchange. “Our allies will be reassured.”
As Shapps takes the reins of the Ministry of Defence, he will need to demonstrate agility and savvy if he is to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor.
Wallace made a name for himself both at home and internationally as a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian cause alongside Johnson.
Paying tribute to his outgoing counterpart, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said: “[Wallace’s] energy and dedication made it possible to carry out the most daring projects and mobilize essential resources at the right time.
His reputation as a defender of Ukraine helped propel Wallace to the top of the cabinet rankings among Conservative Party members, reaching a net approval rating of 77 percent in the last poll. Conservative House Survey. In contrast, Shapps languished with just 3 percent.
Conservative MP Mark Francois, a former defense minister on the party’s right, openly exposed the doubts of some MPs, telling GB News that Wallace was “going to be an incredibly difficult act to follow” and that it would be “a curveball.” very steep learning curve for Grant Shapps.
However, others say Shapps will be complemented by his ministerial team, three of whom are military veterans.
Ed Arnold, a European security researcher at defense think tank RUSI, argued that Shapps’ civilian background would be less of an issue than his propensity to change jobs around Whitehall.
“What surprises people is that this is his fifth appointment as secretary of state in less than a year,” Arnold said. “His proven ability to manage a large department is questionable.”
Although he is a relative newcomer to the world stage, allies argue that Shapps is well qualified to succeed Wallace.
A former British government aide who worked with Shapps said he felt “really deeply attached to Ukraine”, noting that he had hosted a refugee family in his own home over the past year and that his Jewish ancestors had come to the UK from Eastern Europe. “so it’s sensitive to that region.”
As transport secretary under Johnson, Shapps was involved in discussions about support for Ukraine’s infrastructure from the early stages of the Russian invasion.
That emphasis has deepened in his most recent role as energy secretary, which took him on his first official visit to kyiv last week and saw him announce plans for a energy security summit in London to coincide with the second anniversary of the war.
Jason McCartney, secretary of the House of Commons all-party group on Ukraine – formerly chaired by Shapps – welcomed a “smart appointment” and praised Shapps’ “knowledge and commitment to the Ukrainian people”.
The new Defense Secretary’s differences with his predecessor could even prove an advantage in advancing other parts of the defense package, according to Policy Exchange’s Gaston.
She suggested that Wallace’s focus on the Ukraine conflict “sometimes gave the impression that he was less interested” in other major projects such as the AUKUS military pact with Australia and the United States – “and there will be many eyes in Canberra and Washington to see if he [Shapps] this could increase the government’s ambitions on this subject.”
However, Shapps’ rapid elevation fits with the widely held expectation that Sunak would ultimately appoint a loyalist who would not cause problems by demanding additional funding for the armed forces – as Wallace had repeatedly done. And some Tory MPs are already questioning Shapps’ ability to take on the Treasury.
Speaking to POLITICO, House Defense Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood stressed that “we need to move away from the current 2% peacetime budget.” [of GDP on defense] — this is what will allow us to rely on security in Europe.”
RUSI’s Arnold said Tory MPs should not expect much from Shapps on this front, since key budget decisions for the year have already been made and long-awaited decisions have been made. updated UK defense and foreign policy strategy already hammered.
And while Sunak seeks to send a message of continuity, one thing will have to change for Shapps, who is both a self-confessed tech geek and one of the government’s most powerful communicators across broadcast and social media.
“He will have to abandon his TikTok Habit», smiled an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I’d hate to be the one to tell him that.”