Grant Shapps brings reputation as arch communicator to defence role

Experienced cabinet minister's pragmatism will help him in key government job, close political associate tells The National

Grant Shapps leaves Downing Street after being appointed Secretary of Defence. PA
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Calm in a crisis, a skilled and expert communicator with a pragmatic approach, Grant Shapps is a shrewd appointment to one of the most intense cabinet jobs.

The role of defence secretary “carries with it a 24/7 duty to be available at almost no notice”, his predecessor Ben Wallace noted in his resignation letter.

Mr Shapps, 54, has already made early inroads into the defence role with a prescient visit to Kyiv last Tuesday, where he posted a video on X, formerly Twitter.

“What I saw in Kyiv this week was a people resolute in their defiance against Putin’s tyranny and Russia’s aggression,” Mr Shapps said.

He will now enter the Ministry of Defence's main building in Whitehall, directly opposite Downing Street, where he will rapidly read into Britain’s most sensitive secrets, including nuclear missile targeting, special forces operations and protocols on actions in UK airspace.

Uppermost will be the pink pieces of paper marked “Top Secret”, giving Britain’s assessment of the Ukraine counter-offensive and the threat to UK security from Russia, China and North Korea.

They will also include an assessment of Middle East hot spots as well as the deteriorating ISIS situation in central Africa.

A close political associate told The National that Mr Shapps will be delighted with the new post. “Grant will be very happy indeed with this appointment. It will certainly give him lots of toys to play with that will enhance his standing.”

More importantly, as Secretary of Defence, he will work closely with Washington, where he already has a solid reputation for competence.

“Grant had a good relationship with Pete Buttigieg, his transport opposite number, in the US,” the political associate said. “They recognised that he is a pragmatist in everything that he does.”

Mr Shapps, who leaves his post as energy secretary, has a proven ability to rapidly “read into” a new role, having held five cabinet positions in the past year.

This included the record shortest stint as home secretary, for six days during Liz Truss’s chaotic premiership in October last year.

But it was his unruffled handling of Britain’s often-fraught transport infrastructure that demonstrated his smooth political skills, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Britain’s air and rail transport were all severely affected by the lockdowns but Mr Shapps was deft in heeding the calls from airlines over potential financial ruin while balancing those with the need to prevent the disease spreading further.

His rapid problem-solving was well demonstrated after a bureaucratic mishap left the UAE on the red list of countries banned from flying into Britain.

Within 24 hours of the position being noted, Mr Shapps granted an interview with The National, in which he disclosed that he had remedied the problem, allowing this newspaper to announce the solution.

That smart media handling has led to him being used by Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak as a key communicator to sell government policies.

Live interviews are his bread and butter, where he is rarely flustered and instead is able to tackle the most controversial issues.

As someone who holds a private pilot’s licence, he was able to empathise with the airlines and it will be a skill respected by the RAF in particular.

His appointment will also be a bonus for Britain’s beleaguered armed forces. There had been speculation that Mr Sunak would appoint John Glen, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in a move that would be seen as one to tighten defence budgets.

The new Secretary of Defence will almost certainly fight the armed forces’ corner in asking for an expanded budget for a military that has, over the past decade, been “hollowed out”, as Mr Wallace remarked.

Mr Shapps, the only person of Jewish heritage in the cabinet, also has the key political requirement of fixed loyalty. From the outset he supported Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign to become prime minister, then after he resigned last year, he stood steadfastly behind Rishi Sunak.

He supported Mr Sunak resolutely, despite knowing that it was likely he would lose the summer leadership contest to Liz Truss. But it was an intelligent rather than blind loyalty, of a politician who understood who was the best fit for the job.

That shrewdness and his communication skills will be key capabilities in one of the biggest roles in government.

Military reception

Mr Shapps will have to absorb a very large amount of information in a very short period of time and make snap decisions, a leading military analyst said.

“He will be invited to make difficult decisions with incomplete information at very short notice,” Brig Ben Barry of the IISS think-tank told The National. “It doesn't take much for a potential flashpoint to become an active flashpoint, whether it’s in Ukraine, Russia, Iran, the Middle East, South China Sea or North Korea.”

Mr Wallace will also be “a tough act to follow” – he had arguably been the best defence secretary in the past 50 years, getting the calls right on Ukraine and Russia, alongside securing more funding to upgrade the military.

But the Ministry of Defence also had to accept that it has been twice defeated during Mr Wallace’s tenure, in Afghanistan and Mali, where “both missions failed to stabilise those countries”, Brig Barry said. “Denying this institutionally means that important lessons can't be learnt.”

Similarly, the army is being reduced to its smallest size in centuries and had yet to declare which forces it would assign to Nato to implement its new strategic concept.

There was, therefore, “unfinished business that Shapps cannot avoid tending to” with the spiralling cost of Britain’s nuclear deterrent also eating into its conventional weapons programme.

The key leadership team of civil servants and military leaders will want Mr Shapps to make a success of the role and “become an expert on his portfolio as quickly as possible”.

“Particularly because there might be a rapid flare-up in the international situation that requires him to make rapid decisions under pressure,” Brig Barry added.

Updated: September 27, 2023, 12:30 PM