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HomeE.U.Britain’s new defence secretary is Grant Shapps. What it means to Ukraine

Britain’s new defence secretary is Grant Shapps. What it means to Ukraine

Rishi Sunak wants continuity during war time and calmness — but MPs are not sure if Shapps copes the job, according to Politico.

With Ben Wallace resigned as U.K. defense secretary this Thursday, the initial power duo who came out fighting for Ukraine disappeared now.

While Boris Johnson received reluctant respect all over the world thanks to his quick response to the beginning of Russian invasion in Ukraine — and close communication with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — Johnson’s old pal Wallace was equally lauded for standing behind him and doing great part of the work.

Now Grant Shapps has to show at his place the Ministry of Defense that he is as tough as Wallace.

Shapps is a bright and successful figure at the top of British politics, however turned to be a surprise being chosen for defense secretary all the same. He has only ever held domestic portfolios during a long-time career in office which began back in 2010 under David Cameron’s leadership with the exception of one tiny role in the department for international development.

The former business and energy secretary is also one of only three ministers who do not have any kind of military experience to take on the U.K.’s top defense job in the past 13 years.

However, Shapps’ close allegiance with Rishi Sunak and his extensive dealings with Ukraine show a guarded continuity.

Shapps has taken an active interest in the Ukraine conflict and has framed his previous roles in energy and business as very outward-looking,” said Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the Policy Exchange think tank. “Our allies will be reassured by that.”

Military outsider

When Shapps starts to manage at the Ministry of Defense, he will have to show agility and nous if he wants to become a brighter figure than his predecessor.

Wallace became famous both at home and on the international stage due to being staunch backer of the Ukrainian cause together with Johnson.

Expressing his respect to his outgoing opposite number, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said:

[Wallace’s] energy and dedication have let the boldest plans to become realized, and have enabled critically-needed resources to be mobilized at the appropriate moments.”

His reputation as protector for Ukraine made propel Wallace get the very top of the ministerial rankings among Tory Party members, receiving the level of 77 percent in the latest ConservativeHome survey. Vice versa, Shapps got only 3 percent.

Tory MP Mark Francois, an ex-defense minister on the right of the party, expressed some MPs’ doubts openly, claiming GB News that Wallace was “going to be an incredibly tough act to follow” and that it would be “a very steep learning curve for Grant Shapps.”

However, there is an opinion that Shapps will be complemented by his ministerial team, three of whom have a huge military experience.

Ed Arnold, research fellow in European security at defense think tank RUSI, claimed that Shapps’ civilian past would be less of problem than his tendency to job-hop around Whitehall.

The thing people are surprised about is the fact that this is his fifth secretary of state appointment in less than a year,” Arnold said. “His proven ability to manage a large department is questionable.”

Kyiv responsibility

Allies consider Shapps to be well-qualified to replace Wallace although a relative newcomer on the world stage.

A former U.K. government aide who worked with Shapps claimed that he feels “genuinely deeply about Ukraine”, emphasizing that he has hosted a refugee family in his own house for the past year, and that his Jewish forebears came to the U.K. from Eastern Europe, “so he’s sensitive to that region.”

Being a transport secretary under Johnson, Shapps took part in discussions about supporting Ukrainian infrastructure from an early stage of Russia’s invasion.
That emphasis has increased 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 an energy security summit in London to coincide with the second anniversary of the invasion.
Jason McCartney, secretary of the House of Commons’ all-party group on Ukraine — which was led earlier by Shapps — hailed a “shrewd appointment” and lauded Shapps’ “knowledge and commitment to Ukrainians.”

Beyond Ukraine

According to Policy Exchange’s Gaston the new defense secretary’s disagreements with his predecessor could even become an advantage in headway other parts of the defense brief.
She assumed Wallace’s laser-like 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 U.S. — “and there will be plenty of eyes in Canberra and Washington watching to see whether he [Shapps] might lift the government’s ambitions on this issue.”

However, Shapps’ quick exaltation fits with the widely held expectation that Sunak would ultimately appoint a loyalist who would not make any problems by asking extra money for the armed forces — as Wallace had frequently done. And some Tory MPs are already questioning Shapps’ ability to face off with the Treasury.

Speaking to POLITICO, House of Commons defense committee Chair Tobias Ellwood pointed out “we need to move away from the present peacetime budget of 2 per cent [of GDP on defense] — this is what’s going to allow us to lean into 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 taken and the long-awaited update to the U.K.’s defense and foreign policy strategy already hammered out.

And while Sunak seeks to push 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 strongest communicators on broadcast and social media.

“He has to give up his TikTok habit,” grinned one Foreign Office official. “I’d not eager to be the one to have to tell him that”.

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