When Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss as British prime minister last fall, White House officials said they didn’t worry about his support for Ukraine because he left in place the respected soldier-turned-defense secretary Ben Wallace, who had orchestrated Britain’s unstinting military support of the Ukrainians.
Now Mr. Wallace has stepped down, and in his place Mr. Sunak has appointed Grant Shapps, a politically savvy Conservative Party operative and close personal ally of the prime minister, but a man with little foreign policy and no battlefield experience.
Mr. Shapps, who has held no fewer than four ministerial posts in the past year, vowed to continue the “U.K.’s support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion.” But as Britain faces a general election in 2024, the shift from Mr. Wallace to Mr. Shapps could augur a new, more politicized phase in its involvement in Ukraine.
Conservative leaders “perceive him as one of their great communicators,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank in London. “It may signal that they see defense as a sort of battleground.”
Unlike in the United States, support for arming Ukraine remains strong across the British political spectrum. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, pledged there would be no change in Britain’s policy toward the war if his party ousts the Conservatives, as the polls currently suggest it could.
But Ukraine could yet become a political weapon. Defense is the only major issue where polls show that the Conservatives still hold an edge over Labour among voters. Mr. Shapps, Ms. Rutter said, could press that advantage by reminding people that Mr. Starmer supported Jeremy Corbyn, a former Labour leader who once said he hoped to see alliances like NATO disbanded.
The departure of Mr. Wallace could be felt even more keenly overseas. He played a significant role in pressing the United States, Germany, and other countries to increase their military contributions to Ukraine.