Grant Shapps talks to military leaders about sending British troops to Ukraine to formally conduct training on their soil. Photo: Paul Grover
Grant Shapps had just met the Army during a visit to its Salisbury Plain training area on Friday after returning from a trip to Ukraine the previous day.
The new Defense Secretary was briefed by General Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff, guides the new Secretary of Defense between armor and the Challenger tank.
Mr Shapps, 55, is keen to prepare his bullpen for a job he has already concluded has the “heaviest responsibility” of any Cabinet post other than prime minister.
But the seasoned Cabinet minister (this is his eighth ministerial post) is first and foremost a politician, and back in July he refused to rule out a second bid for the Tory leadership, saying: “Who knows what will happen in the future.” ?
Perhaps with this in mind, he is only too happy to discuss the scandal surrounding Suella Braverman's claim that multiculturalism has failed, while hiding behind an Ajax armored personnel carrier as a makeshift sound barrier against attack. the sound of a Chinook helicopter preparing to land about 50 yards away to fly him back to London.
Cabinet Veteran The minister is a politician first and foremost, and as recently as July he refused to rule out a second bid to become a Tory. Leader Photo: Paul Grover
In short, Mr Shapps, who recently hosted a Ukrainian refugee family for over a year, agrees with the Home Secretary in arguing that all migrants settled in the UK should learn English and “be a productive part of society”.
“I remember David Cameron making the same speech,” says Mr Shapps, referring to a 2011 address in which the then prime minister criticized the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” under which Mr. Mr Cameron said Britain “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives.”
“Look, I just think one of the great things about Britain is that people come here at their best. For example, a Ukrainian family came to me. They are all part of this migratory figure, but people take responsibility, they participate, they learn the language.
“I think what Suella wanted to say is that if you are going to come here and make your life here, then learn the language and become a productive part of society. And this is absolutely correct.
“This is a conservative point of view. We have always thought that this country does best when people who migrate to the country – including my ancestors, by the way – become part of the society. So I think this is correct and reasonable.”
Mr Shapps makes clear that his worldview is influenced by how his ancestors fled persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe to seek refuge in Britain. Last week he traveled to Kiev for talks with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, where he pledged to continue Britain's efforts to help defend the country after Vladimir Putin's brutal invasion.
Mr Shapps has dozens behind him Ukrainian troops in combat uniform who are trained in trench warfare by British troops and troops from other allies, including Australia.
Along with the noise of the Chinook, the Secretary of Defense's words are punctuated by the crackle of blank bullets fired a few yards away from me. Ukrainian soldiers are due to be deployed to the front lines in less than a month, many of them for the first time.
Shapps is now in talks with military leaders about stepping up training and production of military equipment. equipment from private companies in Ukraine itself.
The defense secretary said he discussed Britain's role in training Ukrainians when he saw Zelensky in Kyiv last week. “I spoke about this with President Zelensky the day before yesterday,” he says. “They are so grateful for what we do here. And this is not just a British operation.”
Pointing to the occasional shouts and gunshots, he says: “There are Australians there… This is a real international effort, and the extent to which it improves their survivability and their fighting performance , is simply multiplied by this kind of preparation.
“I think there is a point where I spoke today about ultimately making training closer and actually in Ukraine.”
These discussions are believed to have taken place with General Sir Patrick Sanders, head of the army, with whom Mr Shapps held talks in the shadow of a Challenger tank while their mobile phones were temporarily placed in a metal box to avoid the risk of their conversation being intercepted by spies.< /p>
Mr Shapps has visited Ukraine twice in the past month – his first visit, while he was still energy secretary, serendipitously came just a week before the cabinet reshuffle that saw him replace Ben Wallace with as Minister of Defense.
“Particularly in the west of the country, I think there's an opportunity now to bring more things 'in-country' – not just training, but we're seeing BAE [defence firm] for example moving into manufacturing in-country, for example. I would love to see other UK companies do their part by doing the same. So I think there will be more training and manufacturing opportunities in the country.”
Months of Speculation
The prospect of Mr Shapps being promoted to a new role has eluded months of speculation about who would replace Mr Wallace, who has held the position for four years. Unlike Mr Wallace, a former army captain, Mr Shapps, whose previous roles since the coalition government include transport minister, business minister and housing minister, has no military experience.
During his trip to Salisbury, he wears an army-colored anorak over a shirt and zip-up jumper, which contrasts with the similar blue jacket he wore a few hours earlier during a visit to the naval base in Portsmouth.
He is keen to emphasize this. . his contacts with Ukrainian ministers in his previous energy and transport roles are as one might imagine he might have made with Mr Sunak ahead of the reshuffle.
“From the very beginning of the war, or rather on February 24 , the day the war began, I made a video call to my then Ukrainian number, now a deputy prime minister named Kubrakov, and we have been in regular contact for 19 months since then, same with the energy minister, same with the defense minister,” he says.
“Of all the partners in the world… they are so grateful to Britain in every sense.” . We were the first to help, the first to deliver kits and encourage others to do the same, we provide more training and knowledge.
“President Zelensky described it to me privately: when this is all over and a new chapter has been written for Ukraine, we will provide you with a blank space to write the first chapter.”
The noise of the Chinook's blades seems to reach a crescendo as Mr Shapps delivers the climactic line and shouts: “You may never hear it, but that's it.”
He adds: “Like me I always said, long before I became Minister of Defense, there is a war going on, and it’s not us who have to fight on the front line, it’s not our troops on the ground. But freedom is not free, no matter where you live, and we are ready to step up as a country.”
“Preparing” for NATO
Mr Shapps suggests future support could include assistance to Ukraine. “prepare” for NATO membership after the end of the war, as well as continue supplying weapons. This could include helping Kyiv improve the “compatibility” of its equipment and personnel with that of its NATO allies.
“At the moment, Ukraine needs everything, including ammunition. I looked at the many different platforms and weapons that they use, because of course they will take anything, they need the equipment.
“But ultimately in a NATO force, interoperability becomes much, much more important. and as Europe's largest funder of defense spending and the largest contributor to NATO, we are obviously in a very good position to help our Ukrainian friends prepare for NATO membership.”
Mr Shapps promises to “improve the lives” of British personnel, with a particular focus on military accommodation. Photo: Paul Grover
There The Navy could also play a role in deterring Russian attacks on commercial ships carrying grain from Ukraine, he said. “It is important that we do not allow a situation where, by default, international navigation is prohibited in these waters.”
More generally, Mr Shapps promises to “improve the lives” of British personnel, including by focusing on military accommodation. He appears skeptical of claims about the perverse influence of diversity goals in the military, but rules out any quotas, saying: “We want the Army to be representative of society… Does this take quotas to extremes? No, not at all.”
Last summer, during the short-lived election campaign, Mr Shapps said Britain should increase defense spending to 3 percent of GDP from its current level of just over 2 percent. The higher target was accepted by Liz Truss but then abandoned when Jeremy Hunt became chancellor in favor of a 2.5 percent ambition. Asked whether he stands by his position, the Secretary of Defense returns to his theme about the cost of freedom.
“I think it is very important that we understand that freedom is not free. This comes at a price, and it also helps us thrive, not only by keeping invaders out, but by helping us shape the world around us and do good in it.”
He adds: “I didn’t say we had to do this overnight, if you read my article from July last year. And for me, the halfway point is 2.5 percent, and I'm very comfortable with the fact that we said we'll focus on that as soon as the economy allows us… it's moving in the right direction, so I'm happy with that.”'We need to resupply'
Mr Shapps suggested that transferring equipment such as the AS90 – large self-propelled guns – to Ukraine 'means we need to resupply'.
“I'm not often honest with the Treasury, but they provide funds for replenishment,” he says.
Mr Shapps' eighth government job came with significant lifestyle changes, which he had until he now served just six days as home secretary under Ms Truss last year. This includes 24-hour police bodyguard protection.
His three children, aged from their late teens to their 20s, float around the Hertfordshire home he shares with his wife Belinda, a psychotherapist.
“My daughter has started giving nicknames to people around her. us,” he smiles, then adds, “I walked up to the front door a few times and one of my kids said, ‘Dad, did you know you’re not supposed to go out there?'” But …what these guys do behind us frontline people is a real sacrifice.
“Not being able to go out for a pint of milk or beer on a whim is a small price to pay.”
p>At the end of the visit, Mr Shapps sits in the waiting Chinook, donning his helmet and visor. He is driven on a shuttle over 100 miles through fields, houses and the occasional wind turbine to Elstree Airfield, the airfield where the Secretary of Defense,
an avid airplane pilot, learned to fly, a half-year journey. An hour's drive from his constituency in Hertfordshire.
A crowd of onlookers wait at the airfield, watching with open mouths as the Chinook glides into view and then dwarfs the comparatively tiny training helicopters and planes on the ground as he lands.
Two young men in sweatpants and T-shirts are examining a phone with which they have just Googled the name of a VIP who has been dropped off at a small civilian airfield by a giant military helicopter.
> “Secretary of State for Defense of the United Kingdom,” says one, reading aloud.
“He should be in charge of the whole army and armed forces,” says another, clearly impressed.
As he is taken away security officers, it is easy to imagine that Mr Shapps shares this opinion.