British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace speaks during an interview with Reuters on the sidelines of the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will leave Rishi Sunak’s government at the next cabinet reshuffle and step down at the next general election, fuelling a growing sense of despondency in the ruling Conservative party ahead of a tricky week when internal frustrations may burst into the open.

Wallace, the longest-serving Conservative defence chief who’s long been popular with the Tory grassroots, told the Sunday Times though he remained supportive of Sunak, the time was right to step down after four years in the role and 18 years as an MP.

Wallace leaves after a failed quest to become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary general and as his party trails Keir Starmer’s Labour by a double-digit margin in the polls, with a general election widely expected in the fall of 2024. Dozens of Conservative MPs have also said they will stand down at the next election.

The timing is difficult for Sunak, whose party is defending seats in three special elections on Thursday after some of his MPs - including predecessor Boris Johnson - recently decided to quit right away rather than hang on until next year. Sunak also faces new inflation data on Wednesday that will give voters a better picture of whether he’s taming price increases as promised.

Speculation about impending changes in Sunak’s cabinet has been growing amid voter dissatisfaction with 13 years of Tory government, including deep-rooted problems in the National Health Service. He’s also struggling on key pledges to grow the economy and stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel.

Treasury chief secretary John Glen, security minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan are among the names being speculated on at Westminster as possible successors.

Wallace’s announcement comes amid a “wider sense in the country that the Conservatives are in disarray,” Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, told GB News on Sunday. With more than 40 Conservatives standing down at the next election, it “adds to a sense that people are really concluding that this party is heading for defeat and it’s time to do something different.”

Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch played down Wallace’s departure, however, telling Sky News that people should be “celebrating” his long record of public service and not linking his announcement to “unrelated issues.”

Wallace informed Sunak he was planning to step down on June 16, a person with knowledge of his plans told Bloomberg. The defence secretary was set to announce his decision later in the summer - to avoid it being caught up with the fallout from inflation figures and by-elections - but changed his mind after briefings from government last week made it look like it was Sunak’s idea, according to the Sunday Times.

Wallace, 53, sparked controversy at last week’s NATO summit in Vilnius by telling reporters that Ukrainian officials should show “a bit of gratitude” for the billions of dollars in military aid provided by allies. “You know, we’re not Amazon,” he said.

He walked back his comments in a lengthy Twitter thread on Saturday night, saying in Ukrainian he had been “misrepresented” and he meant that the UK’s relationship with Ukraine was “not ‘transactional’ but more ‘partnership.’”

Wallace’s ambitions to win the top NATO job were dashed as the alliance extended Jens Stoltenberg’s tenure as secretary general for a year. While US President Joe Biden had called Wallace “very qualified” to lead NATO, he stopped short of backing his bid.

“I went into politics in the Scottish parliament in 1999. That’s 24 years. I’ve spent well over seven years with three phones by my bed,” Wallace, also a former security minister, told the Sunday Times.

Wallace replaced Penny Mordaunt as defence secretary when Boris Johnson took charge as prime minister in 2019. He retained the post under two subsequent premiers, Liz Truss and Sunak, and has helped shape the UK response to Russia’s attack of Ukraine.