Ben Wallace on leading through crisis and the private toll of an addiction to politics

March 1, 2024. Series 7. Episode 83

As a soldier and politician Ben Wallace was tasked with keeping us safe through some of the most dangerous moments of recent times.

As Security Minister and then as the longest serving Conservative Defence Secretary since Churchill, Ben Wallace managed crises including the 2017 Westminster terror attacks, the Salisbury Poisonings, the military response to the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier in life as a Scots Guards officer, he was mentioned in dispatches after thwarting an IRA attack.

Against a backdrop of near constant political chaos, Ben has stood out as a politician who put service first … more often than not avoiding the Westminster game playing that has plagued his party for a decade.

He will stand down at the next election and in this episode talks about the very personal, very heavy price he’s paid as a result of the jobs he’s held.

A revealing conversation with a leading politician now free to speak his mind about all things crisis.



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Host – Andy Coulson

CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Zach Ellis and Mabel Pickering

With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global

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Full transcript:

Ben Wallace:                     [0:00:00]   I didn’t really cope with switching off and that’s the personal toll. I couldn’t switch off for a number of reasons, one is the problem in front of us, but secondly I loved it. There was an addiction.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:18]   Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

My guest today is someone who has lived and breathed crisis, who has attended more COBRAs than you could shake a stick at. Who, as a soldier and politician, was tasked with keeping us safe through some of the most dangerous moments of recent times. As Security Minister and then as the longest serving Conservative Defence Secretary since Churchill, Ben Wallace managed crises including the 2017 Westminster terror attacks, the Salisbury poisonings, the military response to the pandemic, and of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier in life as a Scots Guards Officer, he was mentioned in despatches after thwarting an IRA attack, but also suffered the pain of losing colleagues whilst on tour in West Belfast. He was with the group that brought back Princess Diana’s body from Paris and as a member of the Royal Company of Archers, stood vigil by the Queen’s coffin. Against the backdrop of near constant political chaos, Ben has stood out as a politician who put service first, more often than not avoiding the West Minister gameplaying that has plagued his party for a decade.

He will stand down at the next election and has talked about the very personal, very heavy price he has paid as a result of the jobs that he has had. Ben Wallace, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:01:52]   Thank you, Andy.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:53]   How are you?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:01:54]   I’m good, good to see you again.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:55]   Good to see you.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:01:55]   I’m enjoying the wind down.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:59]   I was going to ask, how did it feel on New Year’s Eve going into what will almost certainly be your last year as an MP?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:02:05]   It felt good, and I think really it felt good from the day I mentally crossed the line to saying, “I’m going,” and telling the Prime Minister about mid-June that I would like to stand down at the next reshuffle as Defence Secretary. I was prepared, and I think that’s something that most of my colleagues don’t get. I mean it is very brutal, reshuffles, as you well know. They are pretty brutal. People who you think would take it well crumble; people find they’ve lost their job when they thought they were about to be promoted. And you know, it’s the last vestige of probably 19th Century HR. I mean, no-one ever actually gets away unscathed and I’m not going to be in that position.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:47]   And yet you did. I mean it’s a very rare thing in politics to be able to exit on your own terms. How long had you been thinking about it, Ben?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:02:57]   I think when we had- I can’t remember which leadership contest it was, when we had one of the leadership contests and some people were saying, “Go on, you’ve got to run and have a go at it, you’ve got a good chance of winning,” I remember going for a walk and deciding- I spoke to my family and my children and I thought I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, it wasn’t my thing. I didn’t want it enough, I didn’t want the cost that came with it. And I felt fulfilled in my job.

And I think once I’d made that decision, I then knew I wasn’t going to stand at the next election, and having made that decision in my mind I wasn’t going to stand again, and I’d been at this game you know, started in the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but it all became pretty obvious that I needed to stand down in advance and give the Prime Minister chance to appoint a new Defence Secretary who would fight with him at the next election.

I mean, it would not be very nice to anybody if I turned round six weeks before the election and said, “I’m off, Prime Minister.” He has a right to fight the general election with his team.

So that was the thought process, and then I told him in the middle of June and obviously the reshuffle was probably going to be some time, we all thought the end of July, then it was sort of September, so that was quite nice.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:13]   It’s an unusual thought process for a politician, Ben?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:04:16]   What, to not want to be the Prime Minister?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:17]   a) to not want to be the Prime Minister or to at least have a go at it, and then to decide, “Well, that means that I must try and organise this in a way that it is not just right for me, but is also right for the party, that is right for the Prime Minister. That doesn’t happen very often?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:04:31]   I think there’s some pretty decent colleagues who would do that. I mean, politics is not about you. One of the reasons I didn’t want to be Prime Minister is I don’t like the celebrity that goes with it, I don’t even like being recognised much in my local shop. It’s not why I went into politics, and I felt I’d been given a really amazing chance. I mean, I didn’t expect to be even elected let alone Secretary of State for Defence, so I think I felt pretty fulfilled.

We can all treat all of ourselves better in politics, all our colleagues of all parties. I’ve just come from the tearoom chatting to John Spellar, one of the Labour members of the Defence Committee, and some of these guys are great people. And I think if we were just a little better to each other we might have a chance of improving the reputation of politicians in this country.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:27]   Ben, your father grew up as an orphan, I think, in a mining village in Fife? Let’s start there, can we?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:05:34]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:34]   Tell me a little bit about him, tell me a little bit about your upbringing.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:05:37]   Well, so my father grew up in Kirkcaldy, same place as Gordon Brown. As my father used to joke, the two people of who you wanted to marry or know in those days were the son of the manse, Gordon Brown, or the daughter of the GP. My father actually, he wasn’t from a working-class background, his father had been a solicitor but had multiple sclerosis. He had been a great sportsman, he’d been Captain of East Fife Rugby, a Scottish triallist, got multiple sclerosis and in those days there wasn’t much help for chronic illnesses.

His mother had died basically giving birth to him, so he had no mother. He had a stepmother and then when my father was about 15 his father died. So he grew up with no money really in Fife, Labour heartland, and his great cousin ran the draper’s shop in Kirkcaldy, or actually in Leven.

So yes, he came from a background where I think he had access to people and experiences of people with a broader horizon, coming from in a sense a middle-class background, and had been motivated I think to leave. He said he went on National Service, he went to fight in Malaya against the then Communist Chinese Communism, I think he was an 18-year-old. He came back, he said he remembers coming back a proud young man, done his service, thinking, “I’m the bees’ knees,” and I think he said the local butcher said, “Well, thanks very much but you need to just get on and get down the pit or do something like that.”

Now he was never going to be a miner, but that was the communities he was in. And he said, “I had to leave, I had to escape.” So he luckily went down, a sort of step-uncle, and went down into London, and that’s where he met my mother who was also Scottish, a teacher from Perth. And that was it.

So my influence has been very much my father and my mother really, about their experiences. My mother much more sort of Scottish middle-class, daughter of a dentist, but an artist and quite creative. And a lot of her friends, I always-

in my young childhood, we lived pretty near where Glastonbury Pop Festival is, it used to be called Pilton Pop Festival in my day.

This was in the ‘70s, it was really a hippie gathering and my mother would have some of the hippies to stay. Roger, who built the stage, the Pyramid Stage, would come and stay. My first job was on a burger van in- we all called it Pilton Pop Festival in those days, but yes.

So I think his- he was a single child, his determination, in a sense doing it on his own was always part of it.

But he went to work in advertising in London, and what was fascinating in that world is, as I grew up, some of the people who got to know became some of the early architects in New Labour actually. My sister shared an office with Peter Mandelson at one stage in the 1980s, and that Thatcherite change that was happening was really real. There were lots of people of non-traditional background, like in your interview with Sajid, who, yes, they wanted to be successful.

There was no sin in being successful, although Old Labour would have told you it was, but New Labour wanted to embrace that. And those people were really the people I came in touch with as I grew up.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:10]   So the sort of political mood at home was one of aspiration, was it? It was, “Get out and do it for yourself, it’s down to you.”

Ben Wallace:                     [0:09:18]   Down to you, but it was fairly pan-political.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:25]   Not tribal?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:09:26]   Not tribal. I mean, I’ve never asked my parents how they voted, actually. I sense that in large parts of my parents’ life they were definitely Conservative, but I remember my father in the older, days when The Independent was a centralist paper, my father would have been a Times and Independent reader in those days. And definitely saw, just like Sajid did, the dangers of the sort of the old‑fashioned, “Didn’t go to the right school,” type thing and was absolutely- and was driven; a determination to better his lot from what he came in as.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:06]   So the Army was a clear choice for you?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:10:08]   Yes, it definitely was, but I’ve always been lucky. As a child I remember my father would take me to Bovington, which was the tank museum, and I used to love it, so I always liked the idea of the Army, I loved it.

And when I was at school I had a fantastic teacher called Mr Thomas. Mr Clive Thomas taught me and quite a few of our friends in politics, and he was the one teacher that absolutely inspired me into politics. And funnily enough, when I got to Parliament after Eton, it turned out that Millfield, which was a Public School, had at that period the second highest number of MPs and they were all taught by Mr Thomas. There was Ruth Kelly, if you remember the Labour Secretary of State, there was obviously myself, there’s the MP for Bridgwater, there was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:02]   A real generation-

Ben Wallace:                     [0:11:04]   -Julian Smith, we were all taught- Margot James, we were all taught by him. He’s dead now sadly, and to this day I never knew what his politics was, but he was a great inspiration. I mean, it didn’t help my grade, I think I got a D, but he brought it to life and those two things sort of channelled-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:22]   So politics and Army were in your mind?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:11:24]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:25]   Yes. And were you as clear-sighted as, “It’s going to be the Army for a while and then politics for sure,” or were those just sort of two options floating around in your-

Ben Wallace:                     [0:11:35]   No, they were always things that sort of came along. When I left school I went to do a ski season in Austria and I was a ski instructor. And obviously the Cold War was on still then, it was ’88, and of course the British Army of the Rhine was there en masse in Germany and during the ski seasons they would come down and race and do adventure training.

So I used to see the Army do all this and I thought, “Wow, I like the Army and I love skiing, why don’t I join the Army?” And that’s exactly how I ended up. So I joined the Army completely naively, because I just liked the cold and the snow and mountains, that’s what I love. And in nine years of the Army I think I went once, but I did get sent to Central America and Cyprus.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:23]   You did a lot of travelling?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:12:24]   And it was like, “I don’t like creepy-crawlies, why am I sitting in Central America? I just want to go skiing.” And so it was great fun, I was never going to be a high-flier, I probably did all the wrong things. I loved my time with soldiers.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:38]   Let’s talk about Northern Ireland. As I touched on in the intro, you were mentioned in despatches after your unit prevented an IRA attack. That’s your first experience of crisis would you say? You discovered a device, right, that was intended for you?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:12:54]   I think a lot of things had sort of incrementally grown into my experience. So, when you’re a ski instructor on the mountain and someone’s head breaks open or you find a body on the mountain because someone’s died the night before or-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:08]   That happened?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:13:08]   Yes, I think there was an avalanche safety exercise that was once happened, and I think one of the ski instructors died that day of hypothermia. Or people would- there would be accidents on the mountain, so you start to learn about having to deal with things where it’s just you on a mountain or you and your class, and then I think-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:26]   Did you discover quite early on then that you were quite good in those situations?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:13:31]   I never- I don’t know, I just did what was always natural. I think I always, I mean this was before obviously skiing, but it was formalised probably in my Army training at Sandhurst.

                                           There were some really key lessons of leadership in Sandhurst and contrary to what the public think, it’s not about natural leadership. We teach how to lead.

The Army teaches people how to be a leader and it doesn’t think you can be magically a leader on your own. It’s one of the challenges we have with the police forces. our police need to teach how to lead, not just leave it up to chance.

And there were a number of main lessons or quotes that never really have left me. One was the maintenance of the aim, which is often how you win battles, but what is your aim? And you maintain it and you fix on it. As you remember, when you and I were in opposition, that sense of collective endeavour binds you together, right? In a government- when you’re in opposition you regenerate, you come together collectively, there’s very little room for individualism, egos, and you’re trying to build this team. And then you win power and then literally the next day it all starts to flake away, the pendulum, literally that collective agenda starts to loosen.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:48]   Yes, which is why the coalition perhaps was slightly different because it actually slowed that usual fragmentation down, didn’t it?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:14:54]   Yes, it did. It did. And also the Lib Dems had nowhere to go in the office.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:57]   Exactly.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:15:00]   So the maintenance of the aim, but the other one was have a plan, right? There was a great advert once about, I think it was pensions or something, I can’t remember the name of the company, but the strapline was, “Don’t make a drama out of a crisis.” And I’ve always-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:16]   An insurance company, wasn’t it?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:15:17]   Yes, I think it was. And I always think that is the correct thing is, crises happen in life; the test is whether you make a drama out of it or whether you maintain your aim.

And then the most important thing I think of all leadership, it’s an Army phrase but actually it applies in politics and in corporate leadership which is, the test of leadership is when you go round and visit troops of soldiers, the question to ask is, “What is your High Commander’s mission and your role in it?” And if you don’t know the answer, then the leadership has failed.

And it doesn’t have to be a complicated mission and a complicated answer, but in a military context it would be, “Well, my High Commander, my Commanding Officer or my Brigadier, his mission is to cross that river.” “And what’s your role in it?” “Well, my role is to bring the bridge from the rear echelon to the front.”

But then you also need to know that the soldier, the most junior soldier understands their role in it. That’s how you lead. And if you don’t have a plan and you can’t communicate it, it drifts and people argue.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:22]   Very good. Let’s go back to the bomb.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:16:23]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:27]   That’s a proper moment of crisis, right? You’re on patrol, as I understand it you discover this device, that device was intended for you?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:16:36]   Well, we never really know exactly who it was intended for, but it was primed and ready to go, had its detonator in. The guy who had made it, literally was carrying it to the hijacked car, saw my patrol and saw one of the team that had come up behind, and hid it behind a board and then tried to do a runner hiding behind a house.

So there was this bag, I think one of my Lance Sergeants got on the radio and said, “I think I’ve found something. The guy’s hiding.” So we went over, I went with the IEC Police Officer and I remember unzipping this little white bag and there was an old-fashioned sweetie jar, I think it actually was a Bullseye label if I remember right, with Semtex and nuts and bolts inside it and the detonator coming in.

And once the person who was about to carry it had spotted that we knew what it was, he then darted, jumped over a fence and there was a chase and then there was a bomb and it had been made in the house next door. And so it was a sort of- but you are trained for that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:43]   There’s training but there’s also natural instinct, and you- this is demonstrated later as we go through your political story, you are not someone who is inclined towards drama it strikes me, in the way that you have handled yourself as a politician. That has come obviously partly as a result of your military training. Do you think it has also come as a result of your upbringing, of your mum and dad, can you trace that back or do you just think it’s how you are?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:18:18]   No, I think it comes back to, things didn’t come easily to me. I was never top of the class, never top of the sports team, so there was always two ways to skin a cat. You have to use things like empathy to get on and survive. You have to be able to communicate. Communication, as you know Andy in your world, is so important. And as we get to the new generation, Generation Z and everyone’s looking at their telephones, people are going to realise there’s a premium on communication. If you can’t talk to each other, you can have as many phones as you like, you’re not going to make any money or be successful in your business because somebody’s going to- and so-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:00]   That’s how you compensated was it, as a younger man?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:19:01]   That’s how I compensated. That’s how I found ways to deliver what I wanted to achieve, even if I wasn’t top, top, top of anything.

And I think that means that

when you’re in a crisis- I think it’s incredibly selfish to be a prima donna, it’s incredibly selfish to think it’s all about you. It’s not all about you. It’s about a team. Everything we do nearly is about a team and even when I was Secretary of State, I made sure my ministers were part of a team. I have been a Minister where I wasn’t part of a team, where the Secretary of State was surrounded by SpAds and everybody else and there was no communication and it was all about them. And we were like, you know- because then what happens is the Civil Service pretty much ignore you all and just wait you out, wait for the Secretary of State’s decision.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:46]   Can you give me an example of that, then?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:19:50]   Let me give you the positive. So, I worked with Amber Rudd, she was a great Home Secretary. She always relied, I was with Nick Hurd, he was the Police Minister, and me, and Caroline Nokes, the Immigration Minister, and absolutely brilliant, she led a team, right? And there was nothing you couldn’t go and talk to her about, there was nothing she wouldn’t back you up on.

Sajid was good as well; Sajid would seek advice, he’d ask, he wouldn’t pretend he knew everything. He didn’t feel, and nor did she that it made her any lesser by leading a team. Some people, I think, think that to show any type of vulnerability like, “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” or “I don’t understand this,” is not how you become the next Prime Minister, and it’s always about-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:42]   Accepting that you’re wrong as well?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:20:43]   Accepting you’re wrong, or you don’t know. The best thing is not to get to be wrong by saying you don’t know beforehand and then getting some good advice.

So, I’ve always felt that first of all the biggest enemy of solving a crisis is drama, because that leads to panic. And the one thing the Army taught me is that panic is a killer for everyone. And I used to say in the Security Minister’s job to people, “Look, the public want to know we have plan. So when a bomb goes off or a horrendous thing happens-” and I was also the Minister during the Manchester Arena, and the first thing the public want to know on that morning or that evening or afternoon is that there is a plan. The authorities, whatever you want to call them, have a plan. They’re not sitting there marking it hoping the plan is 110% correct, they want to know that you have thought about it and you have a plan.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:35]   And that you care?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:21:36]   And that you care. And I think that is half the battle, so have a plan and do not make a drama out of a crisis.

And also be honest and be credible; the public want someone in front of them, on the television screen, who is going to be credible. And if that sometimes means difficult news then so be it, but don’t promise things you can’t deliver, don’t promise that there’ll never be a terrorist attack again, and don’t hide some of your mistakes. Just admit it.

But also you’ll get a hearing then. If you say, “Look, it isn’t a science, it’s not a perfect art trying to catch the next person who’s going to try and kill you or blow you up,” especially as some of the next generation of terrorists literally put down their cup of tea and walk out the door and decide to grab a knife. How do you predict that? How do you-? And be honest.

But whatever, do not let something get to a panic, because panic, we’re paid; the Government and the professionals, the Police, the MI5, soldiers, they are paid to not panic. And have trust in them.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:47]   Ben, you left the Army because you said you realised you weren’t going to be a high-flier. Were you angry about that at the time, or a sense of disappointment?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:22:54]   No, I’d had a great-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:57]   That seems to be another very unusual kind of approach to career development.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:23:07]   Well, I joined the Army fairly young. I was 28, I’d had a fantastic time, I’d done two operational tours, I’d had a laugh but I’d also done some good things, I loved my time. But when you sort of realise that you certainly aren’t the golden boy and it isn’t going to fall on you, but also what happens is the next jobs start to become less appealing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:32]   Why weren’t you the golden boy, do you think? Because obviously these people that were making judgments about you got it wrong, right?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:23:40]   Not necessarily, maybe I was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:41]   Well, because what came after rather suggests that they got it wrong?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:23:49]   No, I don’t know. I think I might not have been a very good senior soldier at all, I don’t know. It’s a different skill set. But no, I don’t feel in any way angry, I loved what I had, I loved what I learnt, by being what was then called a non-graduate, I got quite a lot of time being Junior Officer, that was quite fun, because I could spend more and more time with soldiers, and getting the privilege of leading soldiers which is always good.

And I was only 28 so I thought- I didn’t want to get to be 35, 38, and miserable. And I think the thing is always be aware amongst you, when you’re around in a newsroom or anything else, you see all those people who really should have gone and got a different job twenty years ago, and you think, “I don’t want to be that person.”

So, I always thought, “Well, I’ll leave on a high.” I had a great time. My memory of it is great. Some of the people are still serving, but the one thing I’ve always- if I were to criticise myself, it’s easy to say it now, but I’ve never been good, same in politics, I was never a suck-up, I would never suck up to anyone.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:08]   Not very good at managing up?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:25:10]   No, is that what you call it? The problem is, I used to then wear on my forehead why I didn’t think I should suck up to those people.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:18]   Because you’d say what you thought?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:25:20]   I wasn’t clumsy, I wasn’t sort of brute about it, but I just wouldn’t suck up. I wouldn’t be a sycophant and I think- chosen two careers, they don’t usually reward that, and I am very lucky to have been the Secretary of State. Because a lot of my colleagues who had the same view didn’t get to be a Minister, so my timing was lucky.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:46]   So you had these two things anyway in your mind, right, with politics as well from an early stage as you discussed, and you make the decision to sort of take the easy option, to go to Scotland as a Tory?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:25:55]   Yes. That’s called naivety.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:56]   So you’re 28 years old, you are an MSP for North East Scotland for the next four years, that is a tough environment, one might argue or one might imagine a continual environment of crisis?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:26:12]   Yes, so my parents were living back in Scotland by that stage. They’d been to live in America for nearly ten years in Pennsylvania, actually five miles from President Biden, so on the Delaware border, and they’d come back to Scotland.

I passionately didn’t want the United Kingdom to break up. I served with the Scottish Regiment, the Scots Guards, I served with Scottish soldiers and what was wrong with Scotland wasn’t that they weren’t independent. What was wrong with Scotland was everything from socialism to cultural changes that needed to happen in the country, but not independence.

So I was a passionate believer in the United Kingdom, a proud Scot, but I was also naïve. I was serving here in London, I thought, “No-one has ever heard of me, who picked me to fight a seat, I’ll get some very safe Labour seats six weeks before the Scottish Parliament election.”

And I remember going into Scottish Central office and they started picking the seats for the Conservatives in order of winnability. So the ones that were the most winnable in 1998, ’99, was West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, which is sort of Balmoral, Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale on the borders, some of the old Tory seats of the borders, Perth, Tayside, Eastwood in Glasgow.

And I thought, “Well, I won’t pick those, I haven’t done my time.” And a lovely lady called Elaine, who was from Lancashire actually in the Scottish Central office said, “Just tick them, it will be a good learning experience.” And I got picked by the first seat. Now I think it was because I was the only one under 60. The Tory party in 1998 in Scotland, I mean you can imagine, we didn’t have any MPs, we were wiped out, we controlled no Councils.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:00]   Who was leading the party?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:28:01]   At that time the leadership became David McLetchie, he was great, he was a very good man, he was a good leader. But the Chairman of the party at the time, Raymond Robertson, I think he was an ex-MP from Eastwood, he was the Chairman.

And literally overnight, I left the Army, in five days I got on a sleeper, got out at Gleneagles near where my parents were living then, the next day I got on a train, or drove up through Glenshee, and I lived in Balmoral. I lived in a place called Braemar which is the coldest village in Britain, it gets down to like -19 sometimes. The office was in Stonehaven which was sixty miles away because it was a big land mass, and it was just me. And the Factor, which is the land agent of Invercauld, the big estate, his wife very kindly let me have the cottage next door. And I lived there for six months, I bought a dog, and it was me and my dog. I bought a dog called Sally from a keeper and I learnt my trade. And I loved it, actually.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:04]   Your mind was always though on Westminster, right?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:29:06]   Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:06]   So you ducked out of politics for a couple of years, worked in the commercial sector. But you plan I assume was always still to look for that opportunity to get into Westminster? And that’s exactly what happens in 2005 and you become the MP for what was then Lancaster and Wyre, right?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:29:24]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:27]   Your first big Westminster campaign focused on the expenses scandal. I was in the leader’s office then trying to work out how to navigate what was a pretty existential crisis for many MPs. Your campaign, I remember well, did not make you popular amongst some MPs, particularly those who had moats or duck houses.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:29:50]   I remember getting shouted at in the Division Lobby. I mean, again maybe some of this is naivety, I’d come down from the Scottish Parliament where everything was transparent. And I would keep a record of my expenses here, and I think I was fed up with inuendo, there was always this wink wink, “Oh yes, put it on expenses, mate.” You’d go into your local butchers and someone would say, “Oh, you’ll put that on expenses.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty unfair to my wife Liza and the family and me, that actually transparency will hopefully see off that whole episode.”

And transparency also makes the public- they get the benefit of the doubt, not the politician. Isabel Oakeshott, I think, was the Political Editor of The Sunday Times at the time and I said, “Well, I’ll publish my whole expenses right down to a £1 parking ticket and the public can see it isn’t full of hot tubs and all sorts of things, right?”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:59]   You scared the living daylights out of everybody.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:31:01]   And it was all published and then I got shouted at the next day by one of my colleagues, “You fool, what have you done?” It turned out there was an awful lot of colleagues who did put things like that on their expenses, but I think it was the right thing to do. And I didn’t do it, again, for popularity, I just thought it was the right thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:20]   Yes, a proper moment of change as well in British politics.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:31:23]   Yes, I mean The Telegraph expenses scandal came, I don’t know how long after that, but it was the same. And it was there, it needed to be addressed. But then I’m afraid, if I look back on it, going back to “Don’t make a drama into a panic,” there was a panic. And some of the response from both my party and from the Labour party was an overcompensation that trashed a lot of pretty decent people. It was like you had to pay something back, even if you had nothing to pay back. It became as though, “Oh, you’ve got to-” and I mean, they were threatened. If you didn’t pay it back you would lose the whip. It was like, “Well, hang on, some of them have done actually nothing wrong.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:06]   Yes, it was a Star Chamber and it was very difficult.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:32:07]   It was a Kangaroo Court, I think, for some people.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:10]   Very difficult to navigate. Let’s fast forward a bit to 2016 and you are then managing, or you decide to manage Boris Johnson’s campaign for the party’s leadership. I’m going to ask you Ben, what is it that first attracted you to the politician, Boris Johnson?

Because so much, if I can put it this way, and we’ve heard enough of your story already, it doesn’t strike me as being obviously aligned with the Boris Johnson world view, if I can put it that way. So where was the match between the two of you?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:32:46]   Well, I would slightly disagree with that observation. So first of all, Boris is actually one of our most left-wing Tories we’ve had. I mean, I worked for Ken Clarke.

In 2010 when the Conservatives and the Lib Dems went into coalition, I lost my job as the Shadow Deputy Scotland Minister, and to compensate they said, “Would you like to go and be Ken Clarke’s PPS,” which is an unpaid quasi-Government role. And it was the best thing I ever did. And I learnt from the knee of one our best politicians of a generation. Ken taught me- he had first been a Minister in 1974, he taught me about when to get excited about things and not. He taught me about the very important lesson of the relationship between a department and Number 10, and took things in his stride.

But Ken and Boris had one thing in common, which is they genuinely like people. They are interested in people and politics is about people. It’s not about a game.

And Ken is, again, at one level, well, economically he’s off the right of the Tory party, and this is the irony that where the Tory party finds itself post-Brexit. It used to define itself by whether you’re pro or anti‑Europe. If you were pro-Europe you were defined as left-wing, if you were anti-Europe, you were defined as right. But as you see, Boris often gets labelled right-wing but his economic policies and social policies are on the left of the party. Ken Clarke was a Thatcherite economist, he was on the right, privatised reform of the NHS, deficit hawk, but because he was pro-Europe he was viewed as left.

But they both genuinely loved debate and people of different persuasions. And I would sort of ask Ken, “What are you doing tonight?” and he’d be going out with some of my most right-wing colleagues to a jazz club or something, because he just was interested.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:37]   And partly because he’d seen it all, right, it’s that point?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:34:41]   Yes, yes. He’d seen it all. And he used to throw out some of your advisers from Number 10; they’d come into the room and try and throw their weight around and he’d say, “Get out my department.” He read it. And it was always very amusing, and because he didn’t really use a mobile phone, I became his walking mobile phone. Every time in Number 10 there was a crisis, they’d get me on the phone, “You’ve got to go find him.” And he was brilliant to learn from, and what a man.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:10]   You have moved this conversation away from Boris Johnson and towards Ken Clarke.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:35:12]   No, okay, the conversation is Boris and Ken ultimately liked people. They weren’t uber dogmatic and I think good Conservatives are usually very pragmatic, that’s why as a party we have survived hundreds of years. We are pragmatic.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:28]   There’s truth to that. But pragmatism, I suppose, well, Brexit, you tried to dissuade Boris from making the decision that he took on Brexit. You remember that conversation pretty vividly.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:35:39]   Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:42]   Did you recognise that conversation as being one that was actually in the context of a crisis, or that it was going to create a crisis?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:35:50]   I think the wider party was going to be in a crisis whatever happened. I think I remember, well I do remember, I remember him ringing and I think a lot of people don’t really understand why Boris backed Brexit. There are all these throwaway lines about his career, that’s all nonsense.

Boris’ wife at the time, Marina, is a lawyer who often used to represent the Government. And quite rightly, and I used to see this as Security Minister, she would get aggravated by European courts going beyond jurisdictions. So the European Court of Justice crept and crept and crept, and ECHR as well has gone often way beyond both the draft and indeed the political commitments given at the time. I don’t know if you remember Tony Blair had given a commitment about, I think it was the European Court of Justice not going into national security areas. And sure enough, that’s what it does.

So a lot of part of Boris’ view of the EU was about sovereignty, it wasn’t about all the other things that people talk about. I remember him saying to me, “But sovereignty matters, Ben.” And I would say, “I’m a Scot, every day of my life I know what sovereignty means.” Because Scotland ever since the union has pooled its sovereignty. It’s given up some of its decision-making powers, send it to Westminster in 17 whatever it was.

And I definitely noticed even in today’s world, Scots and people and Northern Irish understand sovereignty- well, they understand it, right? I don’t think in England, who has ever really given up sovereignty ever feels, and where they did give it up in Brexit, for example, they wanted it back.

So a lot of it was really about, in his mind, it was sovereignty, sovereignty matters. And I tried to persuade him that, yes, it matters, but sometimes you give and take, and he took the position he did. It didn’t stop me thinking- I always took the view while I was in the remain campaign, I always remember thinking, “Look, in Brexit, there are going to be winners and losers, or just be different winners and losers than staying in,” right? And the job of any Government of the day is to try and mitigate the losing and maximise the winning. I didn’t think it was going to be Armageddon.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:10]   Do you think you should have tried harder with Boris? Or do you feel that you’d said all you needed to say?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:38:16]   No, I think it was Boris’ decision, he was passionate about it, passionate about why, and I don’t think it was- I disagree with anyone who said it was some crazy calculation to be the Prime Minister. I spent a lot of time with him, just going to his house and having a curry and hanging out with him. I was there on the night of the Referendum. I was there when the result came in and I was there when David Cameron resigned, and I remember being upstairs-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:47]   Did you think David Cameron should have resigned, because that was a decision made in the midst of crisis?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:38:52]   No, it goes to my point about- I mean, eventually his instinct about leaving was probably right, he’d fought the biggest referendum probably-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:02]   It was going to end badly.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:39:03]   But not on the morning when what the public are looking for is reassurance and a plan and a settled way of doing it, not “I’m off.” And I think that’s- I can understand his sense, I mean I think he probably should have gone within a few months, but not immediately and just rather into a turmoil.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:26]   Yes, I agree. For three years from 2016 you were Minister of State for Security. During that time as we’ve mentioned, Manchester Arena bombing, 2017 Westminster terror attacks, 2018 Salisbury poisonings, there were other big moments. An astonishing period really of pretty visceral crisis.

How did you handle those moments from a personal point of view, Ben? You’ve talked about your approach to crisis, the reduction of drama, the need for plan, the leadership piece, but from a personal point of view, they are all completely all encompassing, all absorbing kind of moments for you, how did you handle it?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:40:10]   Well, on the lucky side for me, sadly, I didn’t want any of these things to happen, it was an environment I’d been used to, going back to Northern Ireland and the Armed Forces. So it wasn’t alien to me, the pain of terror, the use of terror. Some of the methods, I mean it’s a different adversary predominantly, were different; the rise of social media, the rise of secure comms and the internet and all those things that the IRA never had, you know like WhatsApp and things like that, that was new.

But I sort of just felt on familiar territory, so I didn’t feel out of my depth, I didn’t feel a challenge in that way. One of the things I always loved, I always loved intelligence. I remember I wasn’t good at lots of things in the Army but I remember I would just absorb intelligence.

I remember to this day, even as just a Platoon Commander West Belfast, I can probably tell you every street in West Belfast, and I probably can tell you every terrorist incident that took place on those streets over twenty years. I can tell you at which roundabout Gunner Utteridge was shot dead, I can tell you McCracken’s Alley, and I can tell you them all.

And I just loved it. And when I was the Company Intelligence Officer in East Tyrone and Cookstown I just absorbed everything. And to this day, when I went back as a Junior Northern Ireland Minister, I can remember the families. And I used to say things like when warrants or something was being discussed or inquests, I’d say, “I think I probably arrested that guy,” and they went, “No, no, Minister, I think it was his uncle.” “Oh right,” you know.

So even when I was Security Minister, there was huge amounts of reading every day of intelligence material. And I would absorb it all. And I have a memory on that. So one area I have a memory is those things. So it was very useful at holding to account MI5 and the police, and asking questions.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:17]   So the memory bit is a very important part of your operating system?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:42:20]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:21]   It’s not photographic memory but you have a particular type of information you can absorb and remember and order?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:42:26]   Yes, and used to both argue or hold to account people and point out that this has happened before or, “Oh yes, I remember this, this intelligence came in then and what have we done about it?” Or just as being a normal Minister, “I asked this to be done six weeks ago, where is it?”

I did actually once buy a little book called “To Do List” and write it down, because in massive Ministries like the Home Office or Defence, it’s always easy for things to get lost, so you need to remember what you’ve asked. But the first thing was to get out and about. So I’d go and meet MI5 and meet the Police Officers, I’d go on the ground, I’d go and see the incidents, I would go and see- if people wanted me I’d go and see the victims or speak to some of them, but I would certainly- firstly I care but I also was interested and understood what the challenges were.

And by the time I’d finished I’d got to know most of the, not only the people but also where our vulnerabilities were and where we’d spent the money in the right place and some of the challenges.

And the problem was I didn’t really cope with switching off and that’s the personal toll. The last two jobs, Security and Defence Secretary, are sort of quasi-operational. Certainly as Defence Secretary you are authorising operations all the time; you’re warranting, if you’re required, to do warrants. You are constantly on the alert for global issues or global contact from your American counterpart or Ukrainian or German or whoever wants to ring you. Or even I remember I was on holiday in Anglesey one day and Minister Shoigu wanted to speak to me from Russia. It was the middle of the Ukraine war and the whole- we had to find an interpreter and we did this. So that never switched off.

And then as Security Minister, having read all these plots, every week I would read the top, I don’t know, twenty, fifteen plots of terrorist plotting that was going on, abroad or at home, it might not have been a plot, it might have matured. And then I also had organised crime, so I would know the top seventy, eighty organised crime investigations by the NCA and Police Organised Crime. So you’re carrying it all the time.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:59]   You’re carrying all this crisis or likely crisis in your head.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:45:04]   Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:06]   And we had this conversation with Saj who also dealt with a fair amount of crisis during his time in politics. He said he had this ability to be able to get home, take a minute, he’d always do the red box in the office never at home, if he possibly could. Obviously there were moments when that becomes impossible. But he could say to himself, “Right, stops now,” even if it’s only for a brief period, when he walks through the front door into the family. You couldn’t do that?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:45:31]   I couldn’t switch off. And that is my regret, I couldn’t switch off. I couldn’t switch off for a number of reasons, one is the problem in front of us, but secondly I loved it. And it’s hard.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:44]   Was it an addiction, because we talk a lot about-

Ben Wallace:                     [0:45:44]   Yes, Sarah Vine, Michael Gove’s ex-wife wrote a lovely article about Michael, I don’t know if he thought it was lovely, but I understood it, where she said, I don’t know if she said politics or men have mistresses, and Michael’s mistress was politics and he was addicted to it. And I think, yes there was an addiction to it. And it made it very hard to switch off and that came at a cost, so I think-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:10]   And you weren’t able to recognise it at the time? You weren’t able to do anything about it at the time?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:46:15]   I think I wasn’t able to do anything about it. And I thought I was switching off when I wasn’t. And I tried to do everything. I think that’s the other thing is- I live up in the North West, I live up in Lancashire, Cumbria sort of area, right up in the North. It was part of my therapy to go home, I had to go home. Even if I’d go home for 36 hours. But actually being able to switch off, and especially when you’re followed round by phones. I mean I joked that when I was Defence Secretary I had three phones by my bed. And it followed you round.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:48]   Out of interest, what-?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:46:52]   Well, I had my own one, which you always suspected with your own one you’ve got another one-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:55]   You have a completely secure-

Ben Wallace:                     [0:46:57]   You have a secure one, there are different levels of security in your own one-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:04]   Yes, but when the one that you know is secure is ringing?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:47:07]   Yes, but the problem is those ones are so secure you get warned it’s about to ring.

So all I used to grapple with was, “Look, it’s for defending this nation, and that matters.” And it matters to all of those people who could be vulnerable. And sometimes you take personal risk. If the men and women of our Armed Forces and our Intelligence Services can take risks, then I’m damn sure a politician can take a risk to keep them safe. It’s his duty or her duty to do the same thing.

I remember going into a country, because I also had overseas terrorism, so we did a lot after- you remember Tunisia and the Suez crisis, how do we make sure British tourists abroad are safe, right?

And often in politics you get asked, “Why are you working with these countries?” Well, I’ll tell you why; a million British tourists go on holiday every year there. So whether you like it or not, if we don’t work with their Intelligence Services, British tourists could be vulnerable.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:05]   So Ben, you are aware of the toll that it’s taking on you and the family; you’re married and you’ve got three kids at this point in your career. And you are not able to find a way to organise your professional life that allows some space for family, some space for what you say yourself is the single most important thing that you had.

I suppose my question is, what could you have done? Given the level of incoming, given the sense of responsibility, when you now look back at it from this distance, as you’re heading out of politics, what would you say to yourself in that situation, if you like, what should you have done?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:48:59]   I think one of them and I desperately- and neither did Liza want to do this, one of them would have been to live in London. I live 270 miles away up in the north, so the children were up there, I was down here, two different worlds. If we’d lived in London I would have come home in the evening at least and spent the night in my own bed and seen my children and maybe been better at it.

But also I believe that you live near or in where you represent, so it’s quite a tension in politics. I love North Lancashire, I love where my children were born, I love the people I represent, I’m very privileged to represent those people. I don’t mean it in a shallow way, they’re just good people with good ethos. And I mean, I’ll stay up there, right? I’m not going to suddenly disappear off and go and live in another part of the country. I like my constituents and I like the region, the North West. So that would have been the price we’d have had to pay.

But also I suspect find a way to delegate more. The problem in our system, it’s very hierarchical. And in law, the Secretary of State is the authority, not the Minister of State, in many areas. And ultimately the Civil Service will work for the Secretary of State.

Now I hope and if you spoke to my Junior Ministers they would agree, I did everything I could to make sure my Junior Ministers were given as much free range. I trusted them.

But sometimes the challenge of the bureaucracy that is British Government, and you know this most, if you want to see something through you have to just be relentless on them because bureaucracy will slow it down, kill it off, divert it and then the Treasury will appear and always kill it off.

So it’s that awful- I used to sort of joke with my officials, “Belligerence is a quality, especially when dealing with Number 10. Because Ken Clarke taught me, “Secretary of States run departments, not Number 10.” And that is true. Don’t tell Number 10 I’m telling you that.

And ultimately, I could have tried to find a way to delegate more.

It’s quite a hard question, really, because at one level I do not regret that I could devote my time to keeping this nation safe and supporting the men and women of the Security services, the Police, and the Armed Forces. They are amazing. And I think that goes back to “How do you get through crisis?” Well, the one thing I always learnt, there’s always someone worse off. Always. I’m not the young man away from his family for six months in Sudan or Somalia or on a ship on the other side of the world away from his young babies. I’m not doing that, right? There’s always someone worse off. I’m not the father of a victim who died in the Manchester Arena attack. So I always thought like that. And it makes it quite hard therefore to make a drama out of just doing my duty.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:52:23]   How do we fix that then? How do you match service responsibility with an individual’s ability to maintain a life? Because ultimately for you, just to explain obviously that ended in separation and that element of your life was sacrificed for all the things that you’ve just described.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:52:52]   I don’t know the answer to the how, I wish I did. I don’t. I think high pressure jobs always produce some of those breaks. You will know the bubble, I used to ring up some people in Number 10 and say, “You’ve got to leave, you’ve got to go back to your Navy, Army, Airforce.”

The bubble itself is an addiction but it’s also toxic. And it can destroy marriages, lives, families. The Westminster bubble is a thing, and it’s terribly exciting. And I watch young MPs and researchers and civil servants come into it and I see that addiction grow. I mean, you only have to watch the West Wing to see- it’s very well encapsulated.

I think the first thing I would say is stability. Stop having endless reshuffles. I’m always slightly amused when I hear the old throwaway line that it’s always the civil servant’s fault. If you keep changing Ministers, civil servants just wait you out. “You’ll be gone in a year, why should I do that?”

And David Cameron was good at the beginning, he had stability. I’ve done two really long stints. I was the longest serving Security Minister full stop and the longest Tory Defence Secretary. Only when you get to about year two and a half do you actually start to be in command of your brief. And you start to have appointed those civil servants that work for you or your generals or your admirals, you’ve started to shape the team. It also means that there’s continuity and you’ve learnt how the Treasury works, you’ve learnt how Number 10 works. You can get your way, not every time, but you can work out how to get your way. You’ve built relationships. But if you constantly have chop and change-

So I think what you can do is find Ministers that are round pegs, round hole, because they’re already going to start ahead of the game. Make sure the Treasury is full of people that actually understand finance rather than the greasy pole. Make sure that defence, security, are full of people with an interest/background of that area; they don’t have to be spies or anything but they just have to understand it. Make sure the Local Government Department is full of people who understand local authorities. So round peg, round hole, and then give them stability by making them not spend their whole time looking over their shoulder.

You will know, I found it deeply unsettling how Number 10, how SpAds function, certainly Number 10 SpAds, putting ripples through departments of fear or briefing to papers and things like that, you can imagine what that does to any Secretary of State or Minister when they’re trying to get on and do the job.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:50]   Yes, I mean you found yourself on the sharp end of that with Dominic Cummings who briefed against you. Presumably you were as depressed as I was to read that the Prime Minister has had him in to ask for his view on the upcoming election?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:56:06]   I mean, who is he? Last time I said that he was bullying or something, he went all over Twitter saying, “Ah, I know things about Ben Wallace, I’ll go in front of a Parliamentary Committee to tell them,” because you don’t get sued obviously. But I mean apparently according to his evidence for the COVID enquiry, it looked like everyone is an idiot except him.

But it didn’t in a sense really bother me, because I did have the ability to just speak to Boris direct. And these people only have power if you give it to them. Right? I mean if you go, “Ooh, it’s him,” well, I didn’t go, “Ooh, it’s him,” because I’ve seen them all before. We’ve all been in Number 10s with the so-called gurus, they always blow up. They always blow up, it’s like, “Well done mate, you’re next.” So I think ultimately- look, he had a role to play, but he wasn’t going to run my department because that’s not his job. But if it gets large right across the board, people are being briefed against all the time, it’s so counterproductive to the function of the Government.

I mean, I remember it in the Blair Government, this point about going back, I remember it. What I find really interesting is, I’ve definitely seen some of what’s going on now all before. I was in Parliament, I was elected to Parliament when Tony Blair was the Prime Minister and Gordon Brown wanted to push him out, and it was Gordon Brown, and all his minions and briefers were knifing Blair, because it was his turn and his time. I’ve seen all that before. And all it did was hasten the demise of the Labour Party in 2010. So I don’t really think these sorts of things are necessarily helpful in any way, so we can also do something about that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:03]   Well, what can we do?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:58:04]   I think we should have less SpAds for a start.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:06]   Right, okay. So you think the machinery around the politicians themselves is just- that is fundamentally flawed?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:58:14]   I think, yes, I think you are finding too many people. I think there are roles for SpAds, but the job of a Minister and a politician is to learn how to govern.

And that opens another question which I think definitely will help in a crisis, which is we do no training for Ministers, nothing. I mean it’s staggering in this day and age that you can suddenly arrive and be Secretary of State for whatever, you can have done very little time as a Junior Minister, and then run a department or a country or whatever.

In every other walk of life there’s training, I mean, in every walk of life there’s training. We don’t do any training. And then the other bit that I think we can help ourselves with is when you have reshuffles, you should actually have a handover period. Now I know journalists love the, “Such and such has been fired tonight and the new person will be announced tomorrow and isn’t it jolly japes and all that fun?” But ultimately, I handed over a department of 50 billion pounds a year and 220,000 people with no handover. No problem.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:28]   Yes, but because of you, bluntly, not wishing to blow smoke, because of the way that you took control of your own decision making and the way that you handled it, that would have been possible, actually, right? There could have been.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:59:39]   Could have been.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:41]   And there could have been an even more formal handover.

Ben Wallace:                     [0:59:41]   The system doesn’t like doing it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:42]   Suella Braverman, I suspect, the handover process would have been somewhat tricky, given the letter that she wrote immediately on her exit?

Ben Wallace:                     [0:59:51]   If you remember, 80% of what we do is non-political, right? I mean even when Governments change, we all love watching the removal van take the Prime Minister away, but that’s no way to run a trillion-pound Government. We should have, like in many other countries in the world, a period of handover.

It doesn’t undermine the Party-political agenda of the incoming or offcoming Minister or even party, but I now see decisions being announced or trying to be announced in Defence that I’d said no to. Immediately, “Oh he’s gone, right, I’ll ask for these things.” But if you have continuity and you can tell your counterpart, “The Treasury is trying to do this, we don’t actually have that,” you actually manage to retain some form of political direction without having to start all the way from scratch.

And I think a really good reform to help avoid crisis or be better at dealing with a crisis would be training, some form of training for Ministers, stability, not constant reshuffles, and when there are changes to Ministers, a proper formal handover that includes the Minister. So the answer of the Civil Service to my point will be, “Oh, no, no, we prepare the private office, we have all these books to hand to the new incoming Minister and we’ll take it from here.” I mean, that is the answer.

I remember seeing- having announced I was going, well, they knew internally I was going, I spotted in one of the in-trays of the Civil Servants the checklist. Which was “Pack up his office, cancel the pass, change pictures, seal documents.” It was like this long checklist of evaporating you. It’s like, “I ain’t doing that.” And that’s what they do, and that’s you’re gone, you’re out the door, you’re gone. The media probably know you’re fired before you’re fired. That is not the way to run a modern trillion-pound organisation.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:53]   And that is not the way to prevent crisis.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:01:56]   Definitely not.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:57]   That’s the crisis at Westminster if you like, I know that you’re also concerned because you’ve had such a view of it and been so involved in it, Ukraine obviously we’ve touched on very, very briefly.

How concerned are you as you leave politics about the bigger picture, about the global picture? You talked about Russia obviously in the Ukraine context, you’ve talked about China and other concerns. Just give me a feel for where your mind is right now having seen so much?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:02:24]   Well, I mean sadly my predictions are so far coming to the fore. I said when I left that I think towards the end of the decade we’ll be in a conflict, a cold or a hot one, I don’t know, and there is growth at least on I think three fronts. The rise of China and the tensions there between the US and China and the Pacific are real and I don’t really hear much of a political solution to that.

And ultimately politics is going to be the solution in the Middle East, not war and defence, ultimately you have to get to a post-war stage or argument stage, fight stage, so that is a real spot of tension.

Violent extremism is growing across Africa, we’ve seen a series of coups in West Africa predominantly last year, we’ve seen a growth in the power of Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda aligned groups or Isis groups in Africa with very little standing in their way. We’ve seen obviously HAMAS well supported by Iran play out that awful terrorist attack on October 7th and the following crisis that is now developing as a result, with the world trying to work out what to do next. And I wouldn’t believe anyone who thinks they’ve got a solution at the top of their head.

And all the time we haven’t yet committed to spending any more money on defence and security. I always wanted more; not greedily, but since the Cold War the Treasury took the peace dividend. And I accept that, right, after the Cold War the public deserved some of their money back, and we spent it on other stuff.

The problem was it went from peace dividend to corporate raiding, it just kept on slicing. In 2015 we cut the defence budget by 7%. Defence and security, they’re not like pigs you can fatten on a market day as we used to be fond of telling the Labour Party, you can’t do that. So I’ll be concerned if in the manifestos of both the Conservative and Labour Party there is no mention of a commitment to increase defence spending, proper mention. Not like, “Yes, yes, yes, at some stage.” I would like to see, “By a date, we will increase defence spending by X GDP.”

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:46]   So Ben, that’s the spending bit, and obviously there is a link, right, because that’s what provides the reassurance on one level, but understanding the existential threats that are out there in a world beyond our defence budget, you’ve managed to separate yourself from that?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:05:04]   Yes, I have.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:05]   Yes, since you made the decision?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:05:06]   Yes, I mean honestly, I’m done, right? I was done. You can only do X hours a week and no holidays a year type thing, and in the end I got to a stage where I was happy. I’m mentally content to walk away and of course there’s things I could go back to, but-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:28]   You’re determined, you’ll never go back?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:05:29]   I’m not going to go back, I’m leaving Parliament. I will try and fix some of my things in my private, personal life.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:36]   As I said to Saj, David Cameron’s just walked back through the door, so never say never to anything, right? Because you describe it as being, “I’m fulfilled, I’ve done what I need to do, I’ve done the jobs that I wanted to do and that’s it for me.”

Ben Wallace:                     [1:05:47]   Yes, that’s it. Look, two things are either going to happen this year. We’re going to win the election and I think there is a chance the Conservative Party can win the election. I’m a North West MP and large swathes of the red wall are not convinced yet by Kier Starmer, genuinely not. And if interest rates start to fall, people will genuinely feel that in their pocket, mortgage holders and everything else. So I think there is a genuine- and Rishi’s determination to deal with inflation is an important-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:06:18]   Genuine but slim?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:06:20]   I’ll leave that to pollsters, I’m sure they said genuine but slim in 1992 and it is the one thing I definitely would say in nineteen years of politics nearly is, “A week is a long time in politics.”

But the other thing that will happen is either we will have a Labour or Conservative Government, I don’t think the Lib Dems will get a look in. And I think the result for that will be step up to the plate, fund defence, and make sure that when a crisis happens you don’t panic.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:06:54]   You’ve talked about the value that Ken Clarke brought to Government, someone with that experience, someone with that world view, someone who’s seen the movie several times. For those who are only listening, I’ve just put my hand out.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:07:11]   There is no shortage of people who come on your programme and other programmes who could do that and look, I’m always happy to help Britain. If I got a phone call from anyone asking me, “Come and talk in private about your thoughts,” I mean I have, I’ve already spoken to parts of NATO and things like that about you know, “What do you think?” I’m always happy. Good governance is in everybody’s interest. Whether you are a Corbynista or otherwise, it’s in everyone’s interest that we are governed well in this country.

And it is always in our interest, I believe, that other Ministers understand how the Treasury plays games, because ultimately the Treasury is the key department in our government and former Governments that I think holds us back.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:07:57]   So what’s next then, Ben? Because you said, I suspect rather glibly in a previous interview, “I’d be quite happy working in a bar.” But I suspect you wouldn’t be, Ben.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:08:10]   Oh no, I don’t think I can do it for ten years, but no, look, I’ve always drawn sustenance from anything I’ve done, I’ve always found happiness in something. And I did, I was a barman once, I was a waiter once, I quite enjoyed it. Certainly I wouldn’t feel prestige and rank and all that, I don’t care about that, so if I go and work in the local pub for a night or two, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, it would be quite nice. Get to chat to lots of people and be paid for it.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:08:41]   Beyond getting behind a bar then, what’s the plan?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:08:44]   Well, at the moment obviously I have two passions in sport, I like horse racing and I like motorsport. I love motorsport mainly because of the engineering. And Britain leads the world in motorsport, people forget that. We always talk about football, but ultimately there’s thousands of people that work in our Formula One teams based in Britain.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:09:07]   It is a British powered sport, yes.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:09:09]   And in motorsport around the world, if we don’t drive it, we design it, and if we don’t design it we build it, right? I always joke that the Mercedes Formula One engine is actually designed and made in Bricksmith.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:09:18]   So a job in Formula One is something that you are-

Ben Wallace:                     [1:09:22]   A job in some of the sports I’m passionate about, not as a pundit, not as a player, but helping them be successful. I’d look at that, and horse racing is another sport we should be leading the world in. We have real problems at the moment in the racing industry, real problems, not helped by the Government’s ridiculous proposal on betting or something about betting checks, which are just ridiculous. But ultimately something like that. We’ll see. I don’t know when the election’s going to be, who knows? Autumn, I’m guessing.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:02]   And a life beyond?

Ben Wallace:                     [1:10:03]   And a life.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:04]   The bits that you’ve neglected as you’ve described.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:10:06]   And a life, lose a bit of weight, and a life, and there’s lots of things to do out there. And you know what, the other great motto of politics is, no-one can actually work out whether Lincoln said it or De Gaulle said it or someone else said it, but, “The cemetery is full of indispensable men.” So there’s loads of talented people in Parliament despite what we read in our newspapers who actually will be able to do a better job than I do.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:34]   Ben Wallace, we’ve ended on a characteristically self‑effacing point, but thank you for coming in today. And it’s very unfashionable to say this these days, but also thank you for your service.

Ben Wallace:                     [1:10:46]   Oh, everyone has sort of done it.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:46]   If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Ben, please do give us a rating and review, it really helps, and if you hit subscribe wherever you download your podcast from, you will find a lot more useful crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, Thanks again for joining us.

End of Recording [1:11:23]