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Europe

UK appoints Grant Shapps as defense minister


LONDON — When Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss as Britain’s prime minister last fall, White House officials said they weren’t worried about his support for Ukraine because he left in places respected soldier-turned-secretary of defense Ben Wallace, who had orchestrated Britain’s unwavering support. military support for the Ukrainians.

Today Mr Wallace resigned and in his place Mr Sunak appointed Grant Shapps, a politically savvy Conservative Party operative and close personal ally of the Prime Minister, but a man with little foreign policy and no experience in the battlefield.

Mr Shapps, who has held no less than four ministerial posts in the past year, pledged to continue the UK’s “support for Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion”. But as Britain faces a general election in 2024, Mr Wallace’s move to Mr Shapps could herald a new, more politicized phase in his involvement in Ukraine.

Conservative leaders “see him as one of their great communicators,” Jill Rutter, UK senior researcher in Changing Europe, told a think tank in London. “It could indicate that they see defense as a kind of battlefield. »

Unlike the United States, support for Ukraine’s arms remains strong across the British political spectrum. Labor leader Keir Starmer has pledged there will be no change in Britain’s war policy if his party ousts the Tories, as polls currently suggest.

But Ukraine could still become a political weapon. Defense is the only major issue where polls show the Tories still have an advantage over Labor among voters. Mr Shapps, Ms Rutter said, could exploit that advantage by reminding people that Mr Starmer supported Jeremy Corbyn, a former Labor leader who once said he hoped to see alliances like NATO disband.

Mr Wallace’s departure could be felt even more keenly abroad. He played an important role in pressuring the United States, Germany and other countries to increase their military contributions to Ukraine. Mr. Shapps is less likely to do so, analysts say, if only because he lacks Mr. Wallace’s network of connections at the Pentagon and in defense ministries across Europe.

“Wallace is a tough act to follow,” said Ben Barry, a retired British brigadier and senior land warfare fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies in London. “Acting as an international statesman and military diplomat is not something Shapps has shown to be in his skill set.”

Adding to questions about Britain’s future role, Mr Sunak had previously announced that he planned to skip the UN General Assembly in New York in September, where Ukraine is expected to be a central topic.

Mr Shapps recently visited Ukraine as energy secretary, announcing a British loan to the country’s national nuclear energy company. On his X account, formerly known as Twitter, he posted a video in which he saw captured Russian tanks and bombed apartment towers in the capital, Kiev.

And in a newspaper article last week, he described hosting a family of Ukrainian refugees for a year after the invasion. “I can’t stress enough the impact living with this amazing family and hearing their story has had on me and my family,” he wrote.

But he is not widely known in Washington, where Mr. Wallace was a regular visitor. Biden administration officials have said they view Mr. Wallace as a symbol of continuity. Last October, he traveled to Washington for urgent meetings on the war, at a time when Mrs. Truss’ government was collapsing.

Yet US officials have also said they view Mr Wallace as more of a politician – a hawkish defense secretary serving a Conservative government. When Mr. Sunak launched his candidacy for the position of Secretary General of NATO, Mr. Biden did not offer his support, which effectively ended his hopes for the position.

Mr Wallace held office under three prime ministers – starting with Boris Johnson – and enjoyed the highest personal approval ratings of any minister. But there have been battles between him and the Treasury over the scale of the increase in military spending, which Mr Wallace has generally lost.

In his resignation letter to Mr Sunak, Mr Wallace said: ‘I know you agree with me that we must not go back to the days when defense was viewed as a discretionary expense government and where the savings were made by saving. He added, “We both share the belief that now is the time to invest. »

Some analysts have speculated that Mr. Shapps, given his close ties to Mr. Sunak and his past as a political survivor, would be less likely than Mr. Wallace to bother with budget issues. They said it would take time for Mr Shapps to get a grip on the Ministry of Defence, one of the government’s most sprawling bureaucracies.

“Wallace was the dominant figure in shaping Ukrainian politics, even before the Russian invasion,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy chief executive of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “The balance of power over Ukraine could shift more towards Downing Street and the Foreign Secretary. »

While Mr Wallace’s departure was no surprise – he announced his intention to leave government a few weeks ago – Mr Shapps’ choice was. His name was not on most shortlists of candidates for this position.

“I look forward to working with the brave men and women of our armed forces who defend the security of our nation,” he said in a message.

Mr Shapps successfully navigated an exceptionally turbulent period in the Conservative Party and in British politics. Ms Truss appointed him Home Secretary in the chaotic final days of his term. He served as transport secretary under Mr Johnson, where he developed a reputation as a civil servant who could deftly defend the government on television and radio in times of tension.

Former web publishing entrepreneur Mr Shapps, 54, has faced scrutiny over his business practices as well as criticism that he ignored accusations of bullying made by a Tory official when he was party co-chair. He made a brief bid to become party leader last year, before stepping down and backing Mr Sunak.

Mr Wallace, who served as a captain in the Scots Guards, was also once considered a Tory leader. But he ruled out any campaign for higher office. “That’s it, friends! It has been a privilege to serve this great nation,” he posted on Thursday.

nytimes Eur

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