Rishi Sunak risked a military backlash today after installing Grant Shapps as Defence Secretary.
The former energy secretary was promoted to the key role after Ben Wallace formally quit the role he had held for four years under three prime ministers.
In a swift mini-reshuffle, Mr Shapps was replaced in the energy role by rising star Claire Coutinho, who served as an aide to Mr Sunak before entering Parliament in 2019.
Mr Wallace indicated his desire to quit in July after missing out in the race to become Nato’s next secretary-general.
Government sources said the appointment of Mr Shapps reflected his track record of delivery as a senior minister and reputation as one of the Cabinet’s best communicators at a time when maintaining support for the war in Ukraine is seen as vital. But it was also viewed at Westminster as a reward for his loyalty to Mr Sunak.
Grant Shapps was moved from the energy brief to defence by Rishi Sunak, after Ben Wallace formally quit the role
Grant Shapps (pictured being appointed by Rishi Sunak this morning) has served in a wide variety of posts throughout his political career, but has never had a defence portfolio
Ben Wallace confirmed his departure – announced last month – in an exchange of letters with the PM
It is understood that his appointment was backed by Britain’s defence chiefs, but military experts highlighted his lack of experience in the area and questioned whether he would continue Mr Wallace’s tenacious fight with the Treasury for more resources.
Former Army chief Lord Dannatt said the appointment raised questions about the Government’s commitment to defence. ‘The big question is whether he’s going to be a politician first and foremost, or whether he’s going to be looking after the defence needs of the country,’ he said.
‘Is Grant Shapps going to fight their corner in Cabinet or is he going to come quietly and play the political game?’
He added: ‘Now we have a new Defence Secretary who knows very little about defence. It is a complex brief and there is a risk that the debate about the resources needed for defence stagnates, at least until Grant Shapps gets his head round the new portfolio.’
The Liberal Democrats accused Mr Sunak of appointing a ‘yes-man’ to the key role.
Tory MP and former soldier Mark Francois, a member of the Commons defence committee, said Mr Shapps faced a ‘very steep learning curve’.
He voiced surprise that he had been appointed ahead of Mr Wallace’s capable deputy James Heappey, who backed Liz Truss in last year’s leadership contest.
Defence analyst Philip Ingram said: ‘Grant Shapps has been given a holding appointment and won’t be able to achieve anything of substance before the next general election. His appointment highlights what’s wrong with defence.’
The Prime Minister paid tribute to Mr Wallace, saying he has ‘served with distinction’ and been one of the first in the West to understand Vladimir Putin’s ‘true intentions’ towards Ukraine, enabling Britain to provide vital armaments and training before the Russian invasion. ‘Your strategic foresight and clarity has been invaluable to our country and the security of our continent,’ the PM said.
In his resignation letter, Mr Wallace fired a warning shot about the need for more defence spending at a time of mounting global instability. He said the world was on course to get ‘more insecure and more unstable’ over the next decade, adding: ‘Now is the time to invest.’
The mini-reshuffle moves two of Mr Sunak’s most loyal ministers into key positions. But a wider reshuffle has been postponed until later in the autumn. It adds another woman to the PM’s top team. However, there were grumbles from Red Wall MPs that the departure of Mr Wallace, MP for Wyre and Preston North, would leave the Cabinet even more dominated by voices from the South.
As Transport Secretary, Mr Shapps starred in a bizarre clip where he dressed up in different outfits pretending to tour the UK, urging people to get back on trains after Covid
One senior MP said: ‘It feels like Rishi’s Southern Strategy: Surrey, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire promotions; nothing for the North, who lose their most senior voice in Government.’
Mr Shapps has wide ministerial experience and his new role is his fifth Cabinet post in the past 12 months. He said it was ‘an honour’ to take the defence role, adding: ‘I am looking forward to working with the brave men and women of our Armed Forces… and continuing the UK’s support for Ukraine.’
Tory sources stressed that Mr Shapps’ role at energy had a large security element, and pointed out that he has served on the National Security Council.
Last year he kicked off his own short-lived leadership campaign with a pledge to raise defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP, saying the Ukraine war had changed Europe’s security landscape ‘out of all recognition’. He backed Ukraine’s struggle against Putin, and taken a Ukrainian family into his home.
Boris Johnson paid tribute to Mr Wallace. Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, the former prime minister said: ‘Sad to see departure of my friend Ben Wallace. A fine Defence Secretary who got so many calls right – especially on Ukraine. Grant Shapps is an excellent choice to succeed him.’ Mr Wallace also drew tributes from Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, who said he had ‘led by example’.
His FIFTH different cabinet job in a year
By David Churchill, Chief Political Correspondent
Shapps’ appointment as Defence Secretary means he has held five different Cabinet posts in less than a year.
In the latest move, he was re-shuffled from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to become Ben Wallace’s replacement, despite having no defence record to speak of.
When he took a tilt at replacing Boris Johnson as Tory leader last year, he pledged to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP, saying the UK ‘can’t afford not to’ make the boost. ‘Freedom is not free,’ he said at the time.
Nato recommends at least 2 per cent of GDP is spent on defence and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has committed to hitting 2.5 per cent in the long term.
However, Mr Shapps is expected to mount less of a fight than Mr Wallace for increasing funding for the forces, which is likely to cause unease among military leaders. Mr Sunak had several clashes with Mr Wallace over this, and Mr Shapps’ appointment has been interpreted by some as the PM wanting a ‘yes man’.
Number 10 sees Mr Shapps as one of the most effective communicators in Government, with his installation at the MoD signalling a more campaign-driven approach to defence. The reshuffle may also be designed to reassure Ukraine that unwavering support will continue after Mr Shapps became the best-known minister to host a family of refugees displaced by Russia’s invasion.
Before being appointed energy secretary by Mr Sunak, Mr Shapps served as home secretary for a week under Liz Truss.
Miss Truss went on to become the third PM he helped to bring down after he attacked her ‘lamentable’ economic policy. He previously told Boris Johnson the game was up and was among the first to publicly call for Theresa May to quit.
Mr Shapps has also served as business and transport secretary within the last year.
He is known for keeping a spreadsheet on a smartphone which records the views of Tory MPs about the party’s future. The MP for Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire since 2005 was both international development and housing secretary under David Cameron.
He has also been Tory party chairman and minister without portfolio.
He voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum and backed Mr Sunak in both Tory leadership contests last year.
Outside politics, he is a lover of gadgets and technology, drives an electric Tesla car and is a keen amateur pilot. He is related to rock royalty. Mick Jones of 1970s punk band The Clash is his cousin.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1968, Mr Shapps, 54, was educated in Watford before going on to study business and finance at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has three children with his wife Belinda.
He survived a ‘spectacular’ car crash in America in 1989. Upon returning to the UK he founded PrintHouse Corporation, a printing business which helped him become a self-made millionaire. In 1999 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but beat the disease following treatment.
Perhaps the most controversial moment of his career was in 2015, when it emerged he had operated a web sales business, How To Corp, under the fake name Michael Green. It claimed that clients who spent $200 on its software could ‘make $20,000 in 20 days guaranteed’.
A recording of Mr Shapps speaking as Mr Green in 2006 contradicted his claim that ‘I did not have a second job while being an MP’, which he was later forced to clarify.