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James Heappey becomes latest Tory MP to stand down as he leaves defence post

James Heappey is set to leave his role as armed forces minister and quit as an MP.

As first reported by The Times, Government sources have confirmed that the Conservative MP for Wells, Somerset, will leave his role at the end of the month.

The veteran has also confirmed in a letter to his constituents that he will stand down from the Commons at the next general election.

He said while it was a “painful decision” not to contest the election for the newly-created seat he had been selected for, he wanted to “prioritise my family and pursue a different career”.

“After much reflection, I am afraid I have taken the painful decision not to stand as a candidate in the forthcoming general election,” he said in a letter shared on social media on Friday.

“I am enormously grateful to the new Wells & Mendip Hills Conservative Association for having selected me as their candidate at the special general meeting last year but, as you know, a great deal has changed in my life over the last few years and I have concluded that now is the time to step away from politics, prioritise my family and pursue a different career.”

He pledged to support Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, both while continuing to serve as a minister and “then from the backbenches”, in a firm hint at his intention to step away from frontbench duties.

The Times quoted an anonymous Tory MP who said Mr Heappey had been on “resignation watch” from his ministerial role after telling colleagues privately that he was unhappy about the level of defence spending.

Downing Street, which confirmed the former soldier currently remains in his ministerial post, denied any fallout over the defence budget.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, pointing to Mr Heappey’s stated desire to change career, said: “I don’t believe there is any suggestion that this is linked to defence spending.”

The Ministry of Defence said it would not be commenting.

Mr Heappey served in the Army, reaching the rank of major, according to a profile on his website.

During a 10-year career in the Rifles, he served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Kenya.

He had been hotly tipped to succeed Ben Wallace as defence secretary following his resignation last year.

But Mr Sunak instead gave the Cabinet post to Grant Shapps, who has no military experience.

Grant Shapps
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps has been lobbying for the Tories to commit to spending 3% of GDP on the military (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

Mr Heappey adds his name to a growing list of Tory MPs to announce they are to leave Parliament, with former prime minister Theresa May and former party chairman Sir Brandon Lewis some of the most recent additions.

More than 60 Conservatives have so far said they do not plan to run, with the Commons facing a large turnover of MPs at the next election.

As of Friday, some 98 MPs have said publicly they will either be standing down or will not contest their current seat.

Mr Sunak on Thursday ruled out holding an election on May 2 to coincide with local elections, having previously indicated he will send the country to the polls in the latter half of 2024.

Speaking at his party’s spring conference in York, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey told the PA news agency: “The number of MPs running away from the election is extraordinary. And a lot of them are running away from the Liberal Democrats because they know that we can beat them in those seats.”

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(PA Graphics)

He said his party is “determined to beat lots of Conservative MPs up and down the country” as he expressed optimism about doing so “across the whole blue wall, where it’s a Liberal Democrat-Conservative fight”.

The UK Government’s record on defence spending has come under close scrutiny due to global tensions, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Middle East conflict between Israel and Hamas, and Beijing flexing its military might in the South China Sea.

John Foreman, a former UK defence attache in Moscow, told BBC Newscast: “I think the Prime Minister’s not particularly interested, if I’ll be honest, in defence and security issues.

“That’s why Ben Wallace left. That’s why Grant Shapps is Secretary of State for Defence. That’s why David Cameron’s Foreign Secretary. I think Mr Sunak’s priorities are domestic and getting re-elected.”

During a visit to Poland on Wednesday, Mr Shapps called for the inclusion of the 3% target in the Conservatives’ election manifesto, saying: “I want a bigger budget.”

Mr Shapps said: “Defence is the best way to protect ourselves against a military conflict – you have to show your adversaries – so I am clearly in favour (of a 3% target).”

Research by the Royal United Services Institute in 2022 suggested that increasing defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030, as suggested by Liz Truss’s government, would require £157 billion in additional spending over the following eight years.

Mr Shapps’ call follows demands from security minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan that spending rise from 2.27% of GDP to 2.5% immediately.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget last week contained no new money for defence despite concerns about the state of Britain’s armed forces and the Government’s commitment to spend 2.5% of GDP on the military “as soon as economic conditions allow”.

That decision has drawn criticism from some quarters, including former service chiefs such as Lord Stirrup, who served as chief of the defence staff between 2006 and 2010, and warned this week that basing military spending on the financial climate rather than threats to national security was not “any kind of prudent”.