Grant Shapps was on Thursday appointed UK defence secretary, succeeding Ben Wallace who formally stepped down after a key role shaping the country’s military backing for Ukraine against Russia.
Wallace, a popular lawmaker once tipped as a potential party leader, was the longest-serving Conservative defence secretary since Winston Churchill.
He had announced in a newspaper interview in July that he would step down before the next government reshuffle and not contest the next general election, which is expected in 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office announced Shapps’ appointment, around an hour after he was seen entering 10 Downing Street.
Shapps wrote on social media that he was “honoured” to be appointed, saying Wallace had made an “enormous contribution” to UK defence and global security.
“I am looking forward to working with the brave men and women of our armed forces who defend our nation’s security,” he said on X, formerly Twitter.
“And continuing the UK’s support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion.”
Shapps, 54, briefly served as home secretary last October in Liz Truss’s short-lived government and before that as transport secretary under Boris Johnson.
He was also business secretary under Sunak before taking over as minister responsible for energy security and net zero.
Last week, he visited Kyiv to pledge UK support to fuel Ukrainian power plants through the winter.
He also toured a kindergarten attended by the young son of a Ukrainian family he has hosted at his home since Russia’s invasion.
Shapps threw his own hat into the ring to succeed Johnson, promising tax cuts and competent government.
He was widely seen as an effective communicator and campaigner, although a long shot as leader.
– ‘Dedication and skill’ –
In a letter to Wallace accepting his resignation, Sunak praised the “dedication and skill” he brought to the role that saw him take a leading role in Western allies’ support for Ukraine against Russia.
“You have served our country with distinction,” Sunak wrote, adding that he had seen “before others did what Vladimir Putin’s true intentions in Ukraine were”.
“Your determination to get Kyiv weaponry before the Russians attacked had a material effect on the ability of the Ukrainians to thwart the invasion.”
In Russia, though, praise was less forthcoming. “Agent 006 has left the battlefield without honour,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
She wrote in a message on Telegram that Wallace was “responsible for contaminating Ukrainian land with radiation by supplying depleted uranium shells to the Kyiv regime”.
Wallace, a 53-year-old former army officer and a close ally of former prime minister Boris Johnson, had been the UK’s pick to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as NATO secretary general.
But he failed to get crucial US backing to replace him. Stoltenberg has now extended his term at the head of the alliance.
An MP for 18 years, he was the only minister in a senior post to remain in the turbulent transition from Johnson to Truss and then Sunak.
– ‘Conflict’ –
Ukraine will be top of Shapps’ in-tray as he moves to the Ministry of Defence, alongside government funding of the armed forces, cuts to army personnel and geopolitical threats, particularly from China.
In July, Wallace said he feared the world would be “much more unsafe, more insecure” by the end of the decade.
“I think we will find ourselves in a conflict. Whether it is a cold or a warm conflict, I think we’ll be in a difficult position,” he added.
The UK could be dragged into conflict in Africa against Islamist groups, he suggested, and voiced concern about the effect of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea on regional politics, and nuclear proliferation.
On Ukraine, he said Russia’s Putin could “lash out” if he loses and would look for fresh targets, such as against undersea cables carrying Western communications and energy supplies.