British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (Photo by SIMON WOHLFAHRT/AFP via Getty Images)

One cheer for Ben Wallace

The outgoing Defence Secretary’s record is thinner than one might think

Artillery Row

As the Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome, I feel proprietorial over Ben Wallace. The ex-Defence Secretary has topped our monthly Cabinet League Table for over a year. He was our readers’ choice for Boris Johnson’s replacement last summer, and he was our Minister of the Year. At a time when Tory members are increasingly exasperated with their government, Wallace had a unique appeal.

The reasons why are obvious and particularly evident in many reactions to his exit. As the only Secretary of State from Boris Johnson’s first Cabinet in 2019 to survive in his position to Rishi Sunak’s in 2023, he has made a remarkable achievement amidst a Tory party enjoying a long nervous breakdown. The ex-Scots Guard seems to stand above the squabbling PPE-ists as a lone statesman amongst over-promoted pygmies.

I have every respect for Wallace. Who couldn’t for a man who has been at the frontline of politics for a quarter of a century, served in a variety of high-risk roles, and stewarded the Ministry of Defence (MoD) through Europe’s largest land-war since 1945? Yet I cannot join in the excessive eulogising at his departure, and I see Grant Shapps’ appointment as a welcome opportunity for reforming the MoD.

If there was one refrain that characterised Wallace’s time in office, it was a continual demand for more spending on defence. Just this February, he was negotiating with the Treasury via the pages of the national press for another £8 to £10 billion in the Budget. He had previously threatened to resign from under Liz Truss if she didn’t honour her three per cent of GDP spending pledge.

Similarly, it was a promise from Sunak to raise defence spending from 2.16 per cent currently to 2.5 per cent in the future that kept Wallace in the Cabinet when he entered Number 10. Of course, the Prime Minister was helped by the fact that Johnson, Wallace’s chosen candidate, had dropped out. This didn’t stop him suggesting, under Sunak, that the British Army was “hollowed out and underfunded”.

One has every sympathy for the ex-Defence Secretary’s wanting to defend his department’s budget at a time of rising inflation. His demands for more money seemed somewhat disingenuous, however. Finding a few billion extra down the Treasury sofa is unlikely during a cost-of-living crisis, but the MoD is already very well-resourced, partially through Wallace’s own efforts.

Wallace had something of Kipling’s Dane about him

Back in 2020, Johnson and Wallace announced a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending. Designed to increase spending by more than 10 per cent, it was Britain’s largest military investment since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aiming to maintain our position as Europe’s largest defence spender, Wallace claimed that this would allow him to “fix the problems”’ he had inherited at his department.

Unfortunately for the Treasury, Wallace had something of Kipling’s Dane about him. Paying the MoD Danegeld seems only to result in demands for more. The basis of that is the department’s inability to spend what it already has in an efficient and cost-effective manner. As a recent Defence Select Committee report highlighted, the MoD’s record on procurement is woeful.

Examples of spending mistakes are legion. The Ajax tank has had over a decade’s worth of planning and £5 billion lavished on it, but it isn’t functional. Updates to our nuclear infrastructure are over £1 billion over budget. A 2021 report by the Public Accounts Committee found, of the MoD’s 20 largest projects, 13 were running late by a total of 21 years.

The MoD cannot be trusted to effectively spend the £45 billion or so it already receives. Is it thus any surprise that the Treasury is hesitant to cough up more? Jeremy Hunt might suggest that if Wallace’s old department wants more money, it could sell some of its 849,000 acres of land. Eight acres per soldier sounds excessive, especially during a housing crisis.

Defenders of Wallace would point towards war in Ukraine as an obvious cause for an increase in spending. According to Andrew Roberts, donating around three tenths of our heavy artillery to Kyiv has left the UK with too few operational heavy guns to conduct a foreign war. That’s an obvious concern if, as the ex-Defence Secretary has suggested, Britain might be at war on one of three fronts by 2030.

An expansionist Russia, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a terrorist surge in Africa — each are signs of an increasingly hostile international environment. Wallace’s suggestion that each would inevitably pull in Britain, however, speaks to a foreign policy mindset that has failed to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Any pretence that we are an effective military power has long since been shattered.

If our armed forces are as “hollowed out” as Wallace suggests, what point is there for the UK to continue LARPing as a major power? By trying to play at being “Global Britain” whilst continually shrinking our troop numbers, we fail to trim our ambitions to our resources. Our only contribution to a future war with China would be to send an empty aircraft carrier to be sunk in the Formosa Strait.

Wallace has quit with the job half done

This is exactly the sort of hard truth that no Defence Secretary wants to face — especially one apparently keen to fight a second Crimean War. Wallace would hardly be the first politician to struggle to answer Dean Acheson’s quip about Britain losing an empire but failing to find a role. It matters, though, if his solution is an open-ended commitment to a proxy war with a nuclear state run by a lunatic.

It is surprising that Wallace has chosen to retire now, given his centrality to our response to Russia’s invasion. He has quit, in a sense, with the job half done. His very public lobbying for — and then rejection from — the role of NATO Secretary-General made it clear his interests lay beyond the MoD. To some, he seemed an atypical statesman. Wallace was as interested in climbing the greasy pole as any Tory, though.

Ambition in a politician is no crime. It is a damning indictment of Westminster that an experienced Defence Secretary would rather quit Parliament than stay to offer his advice to his successors. It is another depressing sign that senior Tories’ are losing faith in their ability to win the next election. Nonetheless, his departure does provide an overdue opportunity for a foreign policy re-set.

Already, Sunak seems to have trimmed our ambitions back from the wide horizons of his predecessors to a focus on domestic security, cooperation with our European neighbours and a realistic relationship with China. The defence community’s cold reaction to Shapps’ appointment suggests a welcome opportunity for challenging long-standing assumptions and vested interests.

Shapps has made the obligatory noises about raising defence spending. His record at Transport and Energy Security suggests a minister able to get on top of a department. If Conservatives use the year or so ahead of the next election to address the MoD’s profligacy, it could allow them to leave a defence legacy that confronts the illusions which have plagued our international ambitions for so long.

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