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Can Military Tories Save Britain’s Conservative Party?

The U.K. would be wise to turn to them for their defense experience and serious policy expertise—not out of hope for a military messiah.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Britain's Defense Secretary Ben Wallace speaks to the media during a visit at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta, Romania, on Apr. 8.
Britain's Defense Secretary Ben Wallace speaks to the media during a visit at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta, Romania, on Apr. 8.
Britain's Defense Secretary Ben Wallace speaks to the media during a visit at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta, Romania, on Apr. 8. DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images

It was a surreal day in British politics: On Tuesday, with two fellow cabinet members and several junior ministers about to tender their resignations, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was cerebrally testifying to the U.K. Parliament’s committee on defense. Wallace is a former British Army officer, as is the committee’s chair, Tobias Ellwood. Indeed, as British politics is descending into chaos, the military specialists in the government and parliament are holding the line.

July 5 is certain to enter modern-history books as the beginning of Britain’s Great Resignation. On Tuesday evening, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid—two heavyweights in British politics—tendered their resignations; they were quickly followed by a slew of junior ministers. By Wednesday morning, 11 ministers and three trade envoys had resigned from the government, and the resignations kept arriving throughout the day. (In Britain’s system, such posts are always held by members of either chamber of Parliament.)

By the evening, a group of cabinet ministers had also asked Johnson to resign. And all resigned for one reason: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repeated lies, most recently over his hiring of a parliamentarian accused of groping—fittingly named Chris Pincher—as deputy chief whip. And in Parliament, where 41 percent of Conservatives voted against Johnson in a June 6 no-confidence vote, more Tories declared they’d lost faith in him.

It was a surreal day in British politics: On Tuesday, with two fellow cabinet members and several junior ministers about to tender their resignations, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was cerebrally testifying to the U.K. Parliament’s committee on defense. Wallace is a former British Army officer, as is the committee’s chair, Tobias Ellwood. Indeed, as British politics is descending into chaos, the military specialists in the government and parliament are holding the line.

July 5 is certain to enter modern-history books as the beginning of Britain’s Great Resignation. On Tuesday evening, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid—two heavyweights in British politics—tendered their resignations; they were quickly followed by a slew of junior ministers. By Wednesday morning, 11 ministers and three trade envoys had resigned from the government, and the resignations kept arriving throughout the day. (In Britain’s system, such posts are always held by members of either chamber of Parliament.)

By the evening, a group of cabinet ministers had also asked Johnson to resign. And all resigned for one reason: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repeated lies, most recently over his hiring of a parliamentarian accused of groping—fittingly named Chris Pincher—as deputy chief whip. And in Parliament, where 41 percent of Conservatives voted against Johnson in a June 6 no-confidence vote, more Tories declared they’d lost faith in him.

Only a few steps away from the chaos in No. 10 Downing St. and Parliament, it was business as usual in the defense ministry. In the afternoon, Wallace testified to the committee on defense, which is examining Britain’s shipbuilding strategy. Listening to Wallace’s civil exchange with the committee’s members about matters including shipyards in Northern Ireland and British maritime firms’ import and export supply chains, one could easily forget for a moment that the government Wallace served was—as he must have known—close to collapse.

Had the standard rules of politics applied to Johnson, his government would have collapsed long before that afternoon. But in February, just as his Partygate woes over illegal Downing Street parties during COVID-19 lockdowns were reaching their climax and Johnson’s demise seemed certain, Russia invaded Ukraine. British politics’ perennial escape artist had done it again, it seemed.

Whether motivated by opportunism or by genuine sympathy for Ukraine, Johnson’s government quickly made London a leader in military support for Kyiv. Britain became one of the very first countries to deliver weaponry to the Ukrainians early on, and it has kept delivering a lot of it: more than 5,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles, long-range multiple launch rocket systems, artillery systems, and much else. Indeed, apart from the United States, no country has sent more military aid to Ukraine.

Britain’s Ukraine strategy has been masterminded not by Johnson but by Wallace.

Britain’s Ukraine strategy, however, has been masterminded not by Johnson but by Wallace. And in various capacities on the U.K. Parliament’s Tory benches, the former British Army captain is joined by similarly capable former military colleagues. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, having served as a British Army officer is a well-trodden path into a Tory career in Westminster.)

Ellwood, a former junior defense minister, served as an Army officer in Northern Ireland, Germany, and other places and is today a lieutenant colonel in the reserves. Ellwood’s counterpart in the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reserve officer. Mark Francois, a member of the committee and a former minister, also served in the Army. Stuart Anderson, a Tory elected in 2019, joined the Army aged 17.

Former defense secretary and current junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt is a naval reservist. Across the aisle on the Labour benches sits Dan Jarvis, a former parachutist officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House of Lords benches include not just former top brass but also recent ministers such as Ellwood’s immediate predecessor as minister and fellow army officer, Mark Lancaster.

Like Wallace, all of them are widely respected. Mordaunt and Wallace, followed by Tugendhat, are considered strong contenders for the inevitable Tory leadership election. All would, without a doubt, govern more effectively and more ethically than Johnson. And all are bolstered by their past military careers. It’s fantastic that the United Kingdom has such a steady stream of former officers willing to serve in politics, and being steeped in the military’s strict rules governing ethics and probity, these officers add an important balance to the many desk-focused professions that dominate contemporary parliaments.

Indeed, Tories such as Wallace, Mordaunt, Tugendhat, and Ellwood seem so untainted by Johnson’s wrongdoings that the public may come to the conclusion that the U.K. needs someone with military experience to lead it. That would be wrong.

British voters can only hope that such capable people get to play an even more important role in British politics.

These four—and many other British MPs with military experience—are capable politicians who just happen to have served in uniform. Having done so has certainly helped shape their character, and service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, or any other troubled region brings invaluable experience and insight.

But no former officer or soldier would claim that service guarantees admirable personal qualities: Like many other organizations, armed forces suffer from constant backstabbing and infighting. A more likely explanation is that former service members naturally tend to focus on national security issues when they enter politics. And with the postwar security order crumbling, their expertise is in constant demand, and the public pays attention to them. But none of them would fancy themselves a military messiah—and nor should the public. Being a competent prime minister amid war, inflation, and an economic crisis would suffice.

British voters can only hope that such capable people get to play an even more important role in British politics. In fact, it’s imperative for Ukraine’s survival that Wallace remain in his post or move upward. What’s more, other Western countries’ political parties would do well to recruit candidates from the accomplished ranks of ex-soldiers and reservists.

But let’s not fantasize about the military, or even ex-military politicians, rescuing the U.K. or any other democratic country from chaos. That never ends well.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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