To make this website work, we log user data. By using Shephard's online services, you agree to our Privacy Policy, including cookie policy.

Open menu Search

DSEI 2023: Will UK defence be 'on pause' until the next general election?

11th September 2023 - 15:30 GMT | by The Clarence in Whitehall


The UK's recently appointed Secretary of State for Defence will likely have little room for manoeuvre to tackle major decisions before the mandated general election in 2024. (Photo: UK MoD/Crown Copyright)

The 2023 edition of DSEI will be the last to be held during the current UK Parliament. With an election due within 16 months, is this the ‘end of term’ for the current government, and what are the prospects for the MoD and British defence more widely?

The recent resignation as UK Secretary of State for Defence by Ben Wallace MP and his replacement by Grant Shapps reinforces the sense that the clock is being run down ahead of 2024's inevitable general election. 

In post for four years, Wallace was seen both internally in government and by allies as a credible heavyweight minister, overseeing a rise in defence spending and leading the international response to supporting Ukraine. 

He also oversaw the delivery of two defence reviews, both of which seemed to sustain long-term funding growth for the MoD.

Core collective training challenges – a British Army view

Insight: The UK's Challenger 3 tank programme gets ready for service in 2025

DSEI 2023: does the Royal Navy's surface combatant recapitalisation go far enough after a decade of neglect?

What will the new defence secretary be able to do?

Shapps arrives at a point where the MoD appears to be undergoing a ‘strategic pause’. Having delivered the refreshed Integrated Review earlier in 2023 there is no realistic chance of a further defence review occurring before 2025, which coincides with wider government spending reviews. 

Shapps' focus will be to lead the MoD to deliver the review findings, not drastically reshape British defence policy.

He will though be forced to take tough decisions on spending – Wallace reportedly fell out with the Prime Minister and Treasury over the scale of funding required to improve the armed forces, and failed to get as much as was needed. 

Rumours abound that the MoD has serious in-year financial challenges, meaning that Shapps will need to potentially cut significantly just to live within his means. 

Seen as a political ally of the PM, his appointment could owe as much to the desire by Rishi Sunak to appoint someone who will not rock the boat when asked to make difficult decisions, in contrast to Wallace, once widely seen as a credible leadership rival in surveys of the party membership.

Meanwhile senior officials in the MoD will be keen to avoid being pushed to a point where major decisions are taken on programmes that will impact on the next Parliament. 

With a formal defence review occurring in 2025, and an election occurring at some point in 2024, there is a risk that hasty decisions now could reduce a new government’s ability to shape defence policy and capability in future. 

The mandarins will need to walk a constitutional tightrope, supporting their current minister while not potentially constraining their future minister's ability to act.

Shapps is therefore a man with, realistically, a time-constrained mission – to lead the MoD to the next election and initiate the groundwork for a defence review by whichever party wins. 

What complex issues does UK defence face in the next 12 months?

He will face complex issues that are unlikely to be solved in this Parliament, and where the decisions taken will reverberate for years to come. 

Top of the list is ensuring that UK support to Kyiv continues, and that industry can provide the equipment, logistics and munitions needed by the Ukrainians to continue fighting the war. This will require close cooperation with industry, helping create a long-term and sustainable supply chain that can provide what is needed without diminishing the UK’s ability to regenerate its own stockpiles. 

There will also be a need to ensure lessons from Ukraine are reflected in the UK’s own military – for example could more use be made of cheap drones at scale? Whether Shapps has the time to do this though is questionable, and with the general election looming, it seems unlikely that the MoD would want to make such significant policy changes in isolation. 

Such decisions would more likely be taken in the context of the 2025 Defence Review.

Realistically Shapps' room for manoeuvre and to ability make an impact on the department is, for now, extremely limited. There is little chance that he can deliver meaningful reform or change to the MoD – such reforms take months, if not years to deliver and time is not on his side. 

He will be unable to meaningfully alter the force structures of the military, already reconfirmed because of the Integrated Review Refresh document. There are relatively few major programmes due for contract award or ministerial sign-off in the next 12 months, and anything particularly contentious may well slip until after the election.

Shapps is likely to find himself frustrated by his time in office. He will be well looked after by the myriad of service personnel and civil servants assigned to support him in his fifth-floor office. He will get good opportunities for photoshoots and imagery to support any future personal leadership aspirations, but he will be unlikely to get much opportunity to take meaningful decisions that shape how the MoD operates. 

At best his role will be to show continued UK commitment to NATO and Ukraine, and at worst he will be required to take unpopular decisions on cutting capabilities to resolve budgetary issues. He is in cricketing parlance a ‘closer’ – an individual sent on at the end of the innings to round out the batting team’s score. 

Barring very unforeseen circumstances, he will not be given the opportunity by his officials to deliver much meaningful change this side of a general election. His likely legacy is to be unable to be more than an eminently forgettable Secretary of State.

Shephard's DSEI 2023 coverage is sponsored by:

The Clarence


The Clarence

Whether you are looking for a stiff drink or a stiff opinion, The Clarence is …

Read full bio

Share to