Ben Wallace has not ruled out a future Conservative leadership run, as he warned against cuts to “unsexy” defence budgets.
Mr Wallace hailed Liz Truss, who he endorsed in the later stages of the leadership campaign, and said she would be “fantastic” as Prime Minister.
But at a fringe event organised by the think tank Onward, he said he was “conflicted” about a run at the top job after polling suggested he was the most popular Cabinet minister among party members.
In conversation with presenter Iain Dale, Mr Wallace said: “If I’m just left alone and the [defence] pledges are kept, then I think I can hopefully walk off into the sunset when that eventual bus runs you over, which it always will, and feel I’ve contributed.
“At this time of life, the idea was no. I mean do I rule it out? No. I don’t rule it out, but will I be here in a few years’ time? I don’t know either. So I think I just try and deliver that.”
Asked if he wanted to succeed Jens Stoltenberg, the current Nato secretary general, who stands down next year, Mr Wallace said it “would be a nice job, but I love this. I want to hold the Prime Minister to account on her pledges on defence.”
Ms Truss’s promises to increase the defence budget to three per cent of GDP by 2030 and rethink the size of the Armed Forces, after years of dwindling troop numbers, were crucial in securing his endorsement.
Mr Wallace also railed against the Treasury for presiding over a “managed decline” in defence spending during the past four decades. He said the Ministry of Defence had been seen as a “go-to bucket of funding” by successive governments.
“If we have to make unpopular decisions I will make [them],” he said. “Because I don’t want to hand over defence to someone who has the usual bow wave of debt that they try to fiddle through.
“No one really wants to believe that Defence is going to increase its spending, they don’t really want it.”
Asked about the ongoing war in Ukraine, he said it was “highly unlikely” that Vladimir Putin would use nuclear weapons amid threats of escalation in recent weeks.
He also revealed the Russian leader would be “deeply unhappy” to learn of some of the countries that had secretly been helping Britain in its military support to Ukraine.
Asked if he was surprised by the scale of European unity in the wake of the invasion, he responded: “It hasn’t surprised me as much as it’s clearly surprised president Putin.”
In a subsequent keynote speech on Sunday evening in the main conference hall, he laid down the gauntlet to Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, asking him to match Ms Truss’s vow to raise the MoD budget as a proportion of wider spending.
He added the commitment was “what we needed” at a time of increased global instability, which would “not go away by itself”.
“The reality is we can’t afford not to invest three per cent of GDP in defence and our Prime Minister understands that,” he told delegates.
“To do so would imperil our security and risk having our Armed Forces out of step with our peers and, more worryingly, out of step with our enemies.”
Comparing Sir Keir to the hapless Captain Mainwaring from the classic sitcom Dad’s Army, Mr Wallace added: “Whatever the world may throw at us in the next few years – no one says it’s going to be easy – you can make sure this team, along with our Armed Forces, will be working day and night to defend us and keep our allies safe.”