Sunak Puts Ally Shapps in Defense Post as He Shapes Top Team

Rishi Sunak appointed long-time ally Grant Shapps to be the UK’s defense secretary, as the prime minister begins to shape his team ahead of a general election that’s widely expected next year.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak appointed long-time ally Grant Shapps to be the UK’s defense secretary, as the prime minister begins to shape his team ahead of a general election that’s widely expected next year.

Shapps’s promotion on Thursday came after Ben Wallace quit the defense post after four years, a resignation he’d signaled back in June that he was planning. Shapps was replaced as Energy Security and Net Zero secretary by Claire Coutinho, who had been a junior education minister and becomes the first member of the 2019 intake of lawmakers to enter cabinet.

The changes show how Sunak plans to mold his top team ahead of a general election that he must call for January 2025 at the latest, and that’s widely expected in the fall of 2024. Both Shapps and Coutinho — a former parliamentary private secretary to Sunak when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer — are loyalists, and Shapps in particular is seen as one of the governing Conservative Party’s best communicators.

Shapps, despite a lengthy tenure in cabinet, lacks experience in defense, and steps into Wallace’s shoes at a crunch moment for UK policy amid Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine. 

“There is a risk that certainly the debate on resources for defense stagnates” as Shapps gets to grip with his new brief, Richard Dannatt, former chief of the general staff told Sky News on Thursday.  “There is a very strong case that we should be investing more in defense than we currently are. Ben Wallace knew that. Ben Wallace was arguing for it. Is that discussion going to continue?”

Wallace became defense secretary when Boris Johnson took charge as prime minister in 2019. He retained the post under two subsequent premiers, Liz Truss and Sunak, and has helped shape the UK response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his resignation letter, he warned of increasing instability in the decade ahead and urged Sunak to continue plowing more money into defense.

“We must not return to the days where defense was viewed as a discretionary spend by government and savings were achieved by hollowing out,” Wallace said in his resignation letter, which was circulated by Sunak’s office. He thanked the premier for increasing defense spending. 

Sunak, for his part, said in his reply that Britain would move away from its baseline commitment of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense toward a new “aspiration” of 2.5%

For Shapps it’s his sixth cabinet post, having also served as home secretary, business secretary, transport secretary and chairman of the Conservative Party. An MP since 2005, Shapps played an important role in Sunak’s leadership campaign and is rated as one of the party’s best media performers, regularly rolled out on morning broadcast interview rounds to defend government positions.

Most recently he’s been leading the government’s work on boosting Britain’s energy security. He visited Ukraine this month and emphasized the links between energy and defense.

State-educated Shapps earned a diploma in business from Manchester Polytechnic. He started out as a photocopier sales representative, before a series of marketing ventures that caused controversy early in his ministerial career in the 2010s when it emerged he’d used a pseudonym.

Coutinho, 38, is another arch Sunak loyalist, who before entering parliament served as an aide to Chief Whip Julian Smith and then to Sunak himself when he was chief Secretary to the Treasury. Seen as a star of the 2019 intake, she became a parliamentary aide again to Sunak when he was chancellor. Coutinho previously worked at Merrill Lynch and KPMG and studied at Oxford University. David Johnston was named her successor as a junior education minister.

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