By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) -Former energy minister Grant Shapps replaced Ben Wallace on Thursday as Britain’s defence minister, a surprise move that reaffirmed London’s support for Ukraine while raising questions over his lack of experience of the military.
Shoring up his team before a national election expected next year and after Wallace resigned, Sunak will likely deploy Shapps’ talent for media communication in his efforts to overturn opposition Labour’s lead in the opinion polls.
“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,” Shapps said on X after his appointment was announced by the government.
Britain, a key defence supplier for Ukraine, is trying to increase its production of weaponry, particularly artillery shells, to try to help Kyiv push back Russian forces and replenish its own stockpiles.
Moscow has condemned Britain’s military help to Ukraine, saying it is only extending the conflict.
Several lawmakers in the governing Conservative Party expressed surprise over the appointment of Shapps, questioning his experience in military affairs.
Seen as a safe pair of hands with a penchant for using spreadsheets in his work, Shapps, 54, visited Kyiv earlier this month, announcing export finance guarantees.
He also visited the kindergarten once attended by the young son of the family he hosted after they fled the invasion.
Shapps, who says his Jewish relatives were chased out of Latvia, Poland and Russia several generations ago, described hearing about his Ukrainian guests’ experience as “sobering”.
It will be his fifth job in a year, after serving as the minister for transport, interior affairs, business and then at energy and net zero, where he was replaced on Thursday by former children’s minister Claire Coutinho.
Last month, Shapps joked to journalists about his role as the face as the government’s ‘crisis communications’, saying a junior official told him: “there isn’t anybody in the entire world who would want to be in your shoes right now” when he had to defend a former adviser over breaching COVID-19 restrictions.
Wallace confirmed his resignation as defence minister in a letter to Sunak, offering the government his continued support while warning the British prime minister not to see defence as a “discretionary spend”.
A former captain in the British army who helped lead Britain’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said last month he wanted to step down after four years in the role and pursue other opportunities outside parliament.
At a NATO summit last month, he said Ukraine needed to show gratitude and not treat its allies like “Amazon”. He later said his comments “were somewhat misrepresented” and he wanted to emphasize that London’s relationship with Kyiv was not transactional but more of a partnership.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov thanked Wallace on Thursday for his “energy and dedication”, saying on X: “His authority has inspired other countries to join in assisting Ukraine.”
Sunak also praised Wallace and said he understood his decision to step down after eight years as a minister.
(Additional reporting by Muvija M and Anna Pruchnicka; Editing by Kate Holton, Alex Richardson and Philippa Fletcher)