Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, heads to Moscow on Friday riding high: ranked by Conservative members as the best performer in cabinet, his name is being whispered as a possible future secretary general of Nato.
It marks a peak for the 51-year-old, who once observed he had “never had an accelerated path through the Tory party” but who has, unlike most members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, come through crises with his reputation enhanced.
Allies put this down in part to sheer diligence – Wallace admitted last week on a ministerial visit to Croatia that he had only had four days off in the past 18 months – and he gets by on little sleep, frequently at his desk, one said, at 7am or earlier.
Esta vez, Wallace has attempted to prepare thoroughly for his meeting with Sergei Shoigu, the first bilateral between UK and Russian defence ministers since 2013, even reaching out across party lines.
The minister contacted Lord Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary and Nato secretary general, for advice, because the peer is one of the few British politicians to have met Shoigu (the inscrutable Russian once gave him an ice pick as a present).
Insiders praise his ability to make “cold decisions on things like tanks” and argue that, unlike Dominic Raab’s Foreign Office, he had made preparations in case the Taliban took over, by drawing up lists of Afghan interpreters who would be eligible for resettlement ahead of time.
But there are flashes of emotion too. Relations with Raab were often difficult, colleagues said, with Wallace complaining about him, sometimes at length, in private during the Afghanistan crisis. Raab had stayed on holiday at first, and the Foreign Office struggled to handle emergency asylum claims – errors that eventually led to his demotion.
A long-term supporter of Johnson’s leadership credentials, he was also enraged when Michael Gove capsized the 2016 leadership bid. “Michael seems to have an emotional need to gossip, particularly when drink is taken, as it all too often seemed to be,” Wallace, Johnson’s campaign manager, wrote in the Telegraph en el momento.
Unlike most politicians, Wallace did not go to university, opting instead for Sandhurst, the officers training academy, before serving in the Scots Guards for seven years until 1998. He reached the rank of captain, and service included two tours of Northern Ireland.
En un punto, when he was aged 21 or so, he had caught up with members of an IRA active service unit, and found a bag containing “a semtex bomb in a sweetie jar”. Recalling the episode in a BBC podcast interview, Wallace said that the police man standing next to him had shouted “it’s the effing real thing”. The bomb would have gone off if the glass was broken, but he was able to hand it on for safe disposal.
Politics came along in 1999, when he served a term as a Conservative in the Scottish parliament, before getting elected to Westminster in 2005, winning the Lancaster and Wyre seat from Labour. Ministerial progress was slow, and after a stint as a PPS to Ken Clarke, he became security minister in 2016.
But his military background runs deep. One person who knows him well said he was capable of being “very proud and very critical of the military,” arguing he is perfectly cast in his current job. When Wallace broke down during an LBC interview last August at the height of the Afghanistan crisis, admitting that “some people won’t get back,” he said he felt it so personally “because I’m a soldier”.
Others may wonder if he can go further, although Nato, looking for a new secretary general after October, may be a better fit than Downing Sreet ever would be. Even supporters say “he hasn’t been tested on a personal level” in a way prime ministers are routinely in the modern era. “The qualities he has are those that might have got him to the top 50 hace años que,” one added.