Lack of military experience won’t hold Shapps back, says Marco Giannangeli

Grant Shapps confirmed as new Defence Secretary

Much has been made of the fact that our new defence secretary Grant Shapps has no military experience.

It is certainly true that the departure of Ben Wallace, after four years of dedicated service, will leave big shoes to fill.

Capable ministerial contenders such as former army officer James Heappey, or those with direct MoD exposure like Anne-Marie Trevelyan, would have made more appropriate replacements, the critics say, at a time when Britain and her allies face their bleakest geopolitical landscape since the Cold War.

But let’s cool our jets for a moment.

In the first place, personal experience of a ministerial brief has never been a pre-condition for appointment.

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In fact, over the past 50 years, only four out of 19 defence secretaries has donned the Queen’s uniform.

They include John Nott – whose military credentials during the Falklands War amounted to a stint of National Service – as well as the short-lived Penny Mordaunt who was a Royal Navy Reservist.

It was “civilians” who took the helm in the war on terror following 9/11, when progress was marked by body bags and thousands of life-changing injuries.

Shapps’ in-tray will be dominated by Ukraine, but also include challenges in the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Arctic. All at a time when the Army is undergoing its most profound transformation in 150 years.

Crucially, his tenure as energy security minister will help, as will his experience charing COBRA and time spent on the National Security Council.

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While possessing a military background might equip a minister to understand defence jargon and the spaghetti alphabet of Nato acronyms, I doubt years spent as an infantry officer would shorten the steep learning curve by much.

More helpful is Shapps’ proven ability to navigate a government department. And anyone entering their fifth cabinet post in 12 months must certainly be a quick study.

Ministers rely on experts to steer them and, from the Chiefs of Staff to his able permanent secretary David Williams and the various defence boards, councils and executive committees which buttress the Ministry of Defence, he will certainly have no shortage of experts to draw upon.

It falls on these to make their cases clearly and concisely to the Secretary of State, not the other way round.
Only time will tell to what degree Mr Shapps will find himself willing and capable of standing up for the interests of his own department.

But those who howl that this appointment shows Rushi Sunak chose a “yes’ man over the best man or woman should remember that Mr Wallace’s own army career did not equip him to resist a 10,000-soldier cut to the British army.

Being a successful minister or SoS means learning to choose your battles, finding the line of optimum compromise and digging in behind it.

But when it comes to policy decisions, his recent visit to Ukraine shows he is ready to carry on Ben Wallace’s legacy,
Fortunately, Mr Shapp’s extensive cabinet experience means that this is not his first rodeo.

And it no accident that he has survived this long. His hard-won battle against cancer at the age of just 31 shows he has the grit to face down even the darkest challenge.

Given his brush with death, it is no surprise he learned to fly, and takes frequent advantage of any opportunity to fly his tiny plane to meetings.

After spending a week with him on a pre-budget tour of the North of England, my overriding impression is of a man capable of listening, and who possesses impressive mental agility. He will need these qualities, and more, to see him – and the Ministry of Defence – through this next challenging chapter.

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