Profile: Ben Wallace, one of Johnson’s Long Marchers, and a traditional but also irreverent Defence Secretary

26 Jan

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, is not just another cautious career politician who has risen by taking immense pains never to say or do anything interesting.

He might, it is true, be mistaken at first glance for that type. He is capable, when he puts his mind to it, of being as dull as any of his Cabinet colleagues.

The last two Defence Secretaries, Penny Mordaunt (May to July 2019) and Gavin Williamson (November 2017 to May 2019), often courted publicity.

Wallace, on the whole, does not. He might pass, in his Brigade tie, for a quiet clubman, looking somewhat older than his 50 years, a bit of an anachronism and most likely a bore.

His friends insist this is quite wrong: “He’s great company. A good mimic. He sends people up. He sends deeply inappropriate memes on WhatsApp. I could tell you about the time he was serving in Northern Ireland…”

But in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this exploit is like “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”.

Wallace’s irreverence is perhaps one of the things that in 2014 led him to conclude, and tell his fellow Lancashire MP Jake Berry, that when there was a vacancy, Boris Johnson should become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

This was not, at the time, a fashionable opinion. Johnson was not even in Parliament, many Conservative MPs distrusted him, and the party machine was firmly in the hands of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Wallace and Berry are Long Marchers, who seemed to have nothing much to hope for under Cameron, and supported Johnson well before victory seemed within the latter’s grasp.

Berry told ConHome:

“Both of us understood as northern MPs what it takes to win the North as Conservatives. We always believed Boris Johnson was the person who could win in the North – who could get under the skin of northern voters in the way that David Cameron couldn’t.”

Irreverence can be a valuable quality, for one way Johnson reaches northern voters is by refusing to take pious London commentators as seriously as those commentators take themselves.

Wallace told Berry he would go and see Johnson, let him know of their support, and offer to help him to find a seat in London for the 2015 general election.

They also began, with others including Nigel Adams and Amanda Milling, to hold curry evenings at Johnson’s house in Islington so he could meet and get to know Conservative MPs.

Johnson came back into the Commons in 2015 as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and took time to find his feet. Early the following year, when the EU Referendum campaign was about to start and Johnson was wavering between Leave and Remain, Wallace urged him in emphatic terms to back Remain, and told him that siding with Leave would mean being allied with such “clowns” as Nigel Farage, and would lead to the loss of 30 parliamentary votes in any future leadership campaign.

Loyalty in Wallace’s book means telling your leader, in private, when you think he is being a damn fool. Johnson rejected the advice, led Leave to an unexpected victory, and became, after Cameron’s breakfast-time resignation, front-runner to be the next Prime Minister.

The referendum victors were exhausted, which is one reason why they were not thinking straight. Michael Gove told Johnson he would support him for the leadership, and Johnson allowed his campaign, run by Wallace and by Lynton Crosby, to be more or less taken over by the Gove team.

A week after the referendum, on the morning of Thursday 30th June 2016, Gove unexpectedly announced that he was running himself for the leadership, whereupon Johnson threw in his hand.

Wallace proceeded, a few days later, to write a piece for The Daily Telegraph, in which he remarked:

“Just like the operational tours I used to deploy on in the Army, you learn a lot during the contest. You learn who to trust, you learn who is honourable and you learn who your friends are. Ultimately what matters in a campaign is not who you vote for, but how you conduct yourself – because we need a functioning party after the event.”

He offered this account of recent developments:

“When on Thursday morning, just before 9am, I got a call from a journalist asking me if it was true Michael Gove was deserting Boris, I denied it. It couldn’t have been true. Only the night before we had confirmed 97 names of supporters, and I knew of three more coming over that day. Michael hadn’t said anything or hinted at any frustrations over the previous four days so I presumed it was just another story from the ‘rumour mill’ that accompanies leadership campaigns.

“I walked round the corner to see Lynton Crosby, ashen white, taking a call from someone who turned out to be Michael Gove. ‘He has done the dirty on us, mate,’ were the words I remember most afterwards.”

In Wallace’s view, this made Gove – married to Sarah Vine, a columnist for The Daily Mail – unfit for Number Ten:

“One of the most privileged parts of my job as a Northern Ireland minister is to work alongside members of MI5 and the police. They work, every day, anonymously, to keep us safe. In their world loose talk costs lives. It does in a prime minister’s world too. UK citizens deserve to know that when they go to sleep at night their secrets and their nation’s secrets aren’t shared in the newspaper column of the prime minister’s wife the next day, or traded away with newspaper proprietors over fine wine.

“I always told Boris we needed to show that we had support from across the political spectrum. Vote Boris was not to be a takeover by Vote Leave, nor was it to be about an inner circle. But Michael thought otherwise.

“He already had Dominic Cummings (his former special adviser, who has the same effect on MPs as arsenic) making plans for who and how to run No 10.

“Whoever leads the Conservative Party needs to be trustworthy. We have a divided country and a divided parliamentary party. An untrustworthy ‘Brexiteer’ is no different from an untrustworthy ‘Remainer’. Governing is a serious business. It is not a game, nor is it a role play of House of Cards.

“Boris is many things, but nasty he is not. I remember when he made his decision to back Brexit I pleaded with him not to. I said it would lose him the leadership. But he said ‘sovereignty mattered more than anything’. At the time David Cameron was negotiating hard in Brussels. Boris agreed it would be dishonourable to pull the rug from under the PM as he sat at dinner with EU leaders trying to get the best for the UK. So he waited till he was back. Gove didn’t. That says it all.”

After the article appeared, Crosby sent Wallace a message: “Mate, you don’t miss.”

The piece is not one that anyone who read PPE at Oxford would be likely to have written. It indicates a different scale of values; a different idea of loyalty.

Wallace is unusual among modern Cabinet ministers, for he did not go to university. On leaving Millfield School, he spent a short time as a ski instructor at the Austrian National Ski School in Alpbach, before proceeding to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

At school, “a very old colonel, a Scotsman, who had been in the Royal Scots Greys” suggested to him and others that they join the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

But at Sandhurst, “all the college adjutants, nearly all the colour sergeants, and all the company sergeant majors were Guardsmen”, and Wallace decided instead to join the Scots Guards, with whom he served from 1991-98, being mentioned in dispatches in 1992 for leading a patrol which captured an IRA active service unit.

He was on duty the night the Princess of Wales died, and was the Guardsman sent over to retrieve her body.

On leaving the Scots Guards with the rank of captain, Wallace entered Conservative politics, and was elected in 1999 as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, where he served a single term.

He has described, somewhat indiscreetly, how the Queen might have played a part in his selection as a candidate. Scotland on Sunday nicknamed him Captain Fantastic, and convivial Scottish journalists claim in jest to have invented him.

In 2003, he moved to Lancashire, was returned in 2005 as the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and since 2010 has sat for Wyre and Preston North.

This does not mean he has left his regiment behind. His Senior Parliamentary Assistant in the constituency is Alf Clempson, a former Warrant Officer in the Scots Guards, Wallace’s Platoon Sergeant in F Company, applying “the same Sergeants’ Mess and Household Division discipline to his job” now as he did then, while serving also as a Lancashire County Councillor.

In 2005, at the start of his maiden speech in the Commons, Wallace emitted another flash of feeling which would not probably have occurred to a PPE graduate:

“Yesterday, while I was waiting all day to be called, it struck me that a maiden speech is a bit like a first bungee jump, leap from an aeroplane or chance to walk a girl home—while one is waiting, one does not know whether one will get one’s chance; while one is waiting for the chance, one is not sure whether one has done the right thing.”

From 2010-14 Wallace served a convivial apprenticeship as PPS to Ken Clarke, followed by a year in the Whips’ Office and a year as a junior Northern Ireland minister.

In 2016 Theresa May, who had raised Johnson to the Foreign Office, sent Wallace to be Security Minister in the Home Office, where he spent three onerous years preserving a perfect discretion about the horrible matters with which he had to deal.

In the summer of 2019, Johnson’s second leadership campaign was flooded with ambitious MPs rushing to join the winning side, but Wallace the Long Marcher, though this time rather more backward in coming forward, was rewarded with the post of Defence Secretary.

In February 2020, when the Cabinet was reshuffled, “everyone was adamant,” an insider relates, “that Wallace should be sacked, but Johnson hunched his shoulders and insisted on keeping him.”

In an interview last October with ConservativeHome, Wallace expressed pride in the swift response of the armed forces when called on by the civil power to help deal with the pandemic.

The Defence Secretary demonstrated his ability to be not especially interesting when he chooses, but grew more animated at the end of the interview as he explained that he had criticised Labour for waging “unlawful wars” because those who served in those conflicts had found themselves exposed, long afterwards, to vexatious and unreasonable charges, for which the Government which had sent them to war without taking proper precautions against such proceedings must bear the ultimate responsibility.

Wallace does not bring to his post a capacity for airy theorising. He is a pragmatist, who in his speeches draws lessons from his own experience as a junior officer, which senior officers do not always regard as strictly relevant.

Mark Francois, a member of the Defence Select Committee, reckons Wallace is doing a good job. He says he brings continuity to a role which has had six occupants since 2010; has the ear of the Prime Minister; has the moral courage to give Johnson unwelcome advice (for example to keep the promise to protect Northern Ireland veterans against vexatious claims); and has recently obtained an excellent financial settlement from the Treasury.

Francois added that Wallace will have to make sure the extra money is not frittered away, as can so easily happen when long-term procurement programmes are based on absurdly optimistic assumptions.

Johnson is said to have promised to keep Wallace at the Ministry of Defence, charged with ensuring the money is properly spent, though both of them also hope that by spending considerable amounts of it in Scotland, the Union will be strengthened, and Johnson has high hopes for the future of British shipbuilding.

Conservative Party members think highly of Wallace, who is currently fourth in this site’s Cabinet league table.

Wallace has remarked that the Officer’ Messes of his youth were a mixture of “thrusters, characters, dreamers, and drifters…and in time of war you never know which is the one that pulls you out of trouble and is the great leader”.

In politics, as in war, one can never be sure who is going to come good, and who will turn out to be a dead loss. But Johnson is in some ways a more traditional, and pragmatic, Prime Minister than his critics are willing to recognise.

And in Wallace, he has appointed a traditional, and pragmatic, Defence Secretary, with “strange though quite well hidden qualities of empathy”, as one observer puts it, and deep feelings which only bubble to the surface at rare intervals.