Johnny Mercer: “I’m not going to let us go down without a serious fight”
After leaving the military, Johnny Mercer wanted to find a career where he could once more be part of something greater than himself. He found his answer in the shape of politics and the Conservative party. But, more than three years after entering Westminster, the former soldier is reaching breaking point. Disillusioned by what he believes is a sub-par administration, is his very conservatism under threat? He talks to Sebastian Whale
A British soldier lay dying in a field after an ambush during a routine patrol in Afghanistan. The surprise attack had dispersed most of the infantry soldiers from both the British and Afghan forces. Johnny Mercer, then on his third tour of the country, knew he had to act swiftly to extricate the casualty from the scene. The Joint Fires Controller ordered in a Chinook.
“At that stage, that’s when you start earning your money,” Mercer says.
Along with what was left of the infantry unit, Mercer used an Apache to suppress the Taliban’s positions and provide covering fire. Soldiers sprinted out to the Chinook the moment its wheels touched ground and placed the casualty on the back of the helicopter. The pilot, sat in the cockpit with just a perspex screen separating himself from enemy bullets, waited for Mercer’s command to lift.
The situation was, as Mercer understatedly puts it, very dangerous and difficult. The Chinook and its occupants were sitting ducks to an emboldened Taliban offensive.
Even so, the pilot “has total faith in what I’m doing, and I have total faith in the Apache and the guys”, Mercer explains. The wounded soldier survived. “It was a responsibility I enjoyed, but it wasn’t really about me. It was about what we managed to do in order to save that guy’s life. It was extraordinary,” says Mercer.
“I guess what I like doing is achieving the extraordinary, yeah. You can only do that, I think, in extraordinary teams. No one ever achieved anything on their own.”
Mercer, a captain in 29 Commando who served in the Army for 12 years, found a home in the forces. The sixth of eight children, he grew up in a strict Baptist family. It was an upbringing he characterises as “challenging” – another Mercer underplay – and one which “caused scars for life” for some of his siblings (his came in the shape of a “terrible case of OCD”. He is also now an atheist). But in the military, he found “likeminded people, united in a common cause”. “All those things I was looking for I found in the British Army,” he says.
His parents, he jokes, were “absolutely delighted” that he signed up. “I think I’ll leave it at that.”
That pursuit of a common goal – a shared ethos and values set – is what drew him towards Westminster after leaving the military in 2012. “You’re part of something greater than yourself. That’s why I’m in politics.”
But during an hour with the Plymouth Moor View MP in his parliamentary office, up in the gods of the Palace of Westminster, it is self-evident that this is a man reaching the end of his tether.
With customary energy, and devastating effect, Mercer goes to work on the weaknesses he sees in the Conservative party; and most noticeably, outlines in vivid detail the disappointment he feels in the person behind the wheel.
Two aspects of the 37-year-old’s personality seem at loggerheads – his innate desire to be a team player, and an inbuilt scepticism of those in authority.
In a review of Mercer’s book on his time in Afghanistan, We Were Warriors, Tory MP Keith Simpson writes that his colleague has “little time for the hierarchy”. It’s a statement that I’m keen to put to the often-outspoken MP as we sink into his Commons green furniture.
“When everything is falling apart, everything has gone terribly wrong, your patrols are being split in half, a bloke is dead on the road, some of the soldiers are crying in shock, it’s not your rank that gets you to do anything about it,” he says.
“I have the utmost respect for my seniors, but for me, it’s a two-way street. So, yes, one of my faults would be that I guess I’m no good at being treated like shit. That’s a failing as well, and certainly later in my [military] career that caught me up.
“But I feel equally like there are some in positions of authority who literally get off from being in authority. For me, that has always stunk. I think my childhood definitely inculcated a sense of duty against those who seek to abuse their position of authority.
“I’ve served under some wonderful commanders and I’ve served under some terrible commanders. And I try at every stage to retain my professionalism, but ultimately the only things you go home with at the end of the day are your integrity and your values.
“It’s quite interesting because that’s where I find myself now.”
Anguish washes across Mercer’s youthful face as he applies that logic to the Conservative party and its leader. “It’s very difficult because in my DNA I’m inherently a team player. But when you go home from here on a Thursday and go for a run across Dartmoor or whatever, and you’re stripped to your core being, I mean, yeah, you realise it’s a shit show. And it’s hard because people like me are in this because we believe in something, because we want to be part of something greater than ourselves.”
Instead, Mercer continues, the Tories are being “openly ridiculed”. He uses as evidence Theresa May’s statement to the Commons on the Brexit negotiations, which concludes just minutes before I knock on his door. Though Brexit represents a “fundamental challenge” to the country, for voters the UK has not been “a particularly great place”, and the government has little to offer them, he suggests.
“That really worries me, because I’m of the view I’m afraid that Jeremy Corbyn may be a nice chap, but him and more importantly his team in charge of this country would fundamentally change Britain, what it means to be British. And if we as a Conservative party ushered that in, I don’t think we’d be forgiven for a generation and we wouldn’t deserve to be.”
Mercer’s Conservative roots are skin deep compared to many of his colleagues. He concluded what he wanted to achieve “was aligned with the Conservative party” under David Cameron and George Osborne. He points to the life chances agenda and reforms to the welfare system as particular draws.
During his widely praised maiden speech in 2015, Mercer said he came into politics with two objectives: to improve mental health provision and address the plight of veterans and their families. Three and a half years on, he says with resignation that he has “singularly failed in both of those missions”.
The confrontational nature of Westminster means that both sides seek to make political capital out of events, Mercer notes, rather than considering what the reality is for the public who pay for mental health services, which he says have improved. There has also been progress on veterans’ care, he adds, but the government has “failed to commit in a way that I would have liked them to commit”. “I felt we were just about to under David Cameron when he left office. This Prime Minister has a fundamentally different view of the military and the military community than I do.”
This was on show during PMQs when Mercer grimaced at May’s response to veterans being investigated as part of an inquiry into killings during the Troubles. He reacted because the public was watching her response, he explains. “She did not answer in a way that made me proud to be a member of the governing party.”
Lynton Crosby, the election strategist in charge of the Tories’ 2015 campaign, told Mercer he had no hope of victory in Plymouth Moor View. “I hold neither a candle nor a grudge for Lynton,” says Mercer. “He clearly had a job to do and he achieved his objective by getting a first Conservative majority for 25 years. I understand that.”
Motivated by the doubters, Mercer targeted “centre, centre-right” voters whose political inclinations, like his own, were malleable. He knocked on as many doors as he possibly could, and listened.
The exposure was invaluable to Mercer, then an inexperienced and fresh-faced politician who had never voted. But he was shocked to find that this was far from a shared experience across Westminster, with many of his colleagues parachuted into safe seats. A colleague even confided in him that they had never been canvassing. This is where he believes May, the MP for Maidenhead, falls short.
“Politicians like this Prime Minister, who I have enormous respect for, have had a fundamentally different journey to this place and then undertake what I believe to be a fundamentally different job to an MP like me,” he replies.
“Now, you need all sorts of different MPs to make up a parliament, and the strength of the team is in the diversity of it, which is why I’ve been so pissed off lately with everyone openly slamming Boris [Johnson], Philip Hammond, Sarah Wollaston, all the rest of it, because you need that broad church.
“But the party will never really change until you have somebody who is leading the party who has won a seat and knows what it’s like to go out every weekend and advocate for what you’ve just voted for that week.”
He adds: “We’ve lost this ability to fight, to scrap for what we believe in. Ultimately our core business as politicians is winning elections. We’ve lost focus on that for some very good, very capable but ultimately technocrats and managers. That’s not what Britain’s about.”
So, has something got to give? “I think we are in real danger, yeah,” he replies. Mercer predicts we are reaching the end of the professional politician era, and a new swathe of Tory MPs are ready to take on the mantle.
“If you look at Chequers, for example, that is your classic professional politicians’ answer because it’s right down the middle. It doesn’t make anybody happy. It’s the ultimate in not making a decision. And I’m afraid, people who pay our wages and vote for us expect us to make decisions and get on with government, not be fixated on us retaining our position,” he says.
Mercer, who voted Remain, adds: “I think the disdain with which people have held politicians will reach a crescendo if we don’t deliver on that referendum result and make people feel like they’ve left the European Union.”
But for all that Mercer wants new talent to be blooded, would he like to be a part of this administration? “Well no, of course not,” he says. He cryptically adds that he was asked to do a “certain role” and turned it down “for one reason or another”. “It was made very clear to me that… I can’t, I can’t. I mean, would I want to be part of this administration? No.”
Was Mercer blackballed? “What do you mean, blackballed,” he asks.
Was he told that if he turned down a position he would not receive another offer? “… No.”
“Look, I think it’s very clear that this current administration under this Chief Whip, under this Prime Minister, there is no role for people like me,” he continues.
“That’s fine because nothing lasts forever. I am not in this for myself to get a position and be able to crow about being in a particular position. I’m in this because I want to drive forward social change in this country, wrapped around things like social justice. If the government gets on and does that, I would be absolutely delighted.
“I could just crack on in Plymouth, I’m 37 years old. There are other things I want to do as well as being a Member of Parliament for Plymouth in terms of my personal life with my family. I feel at the moment that I can’t just stand by and not say anything.”
Mercer’s increasingly public profile – he appears on Channel 4’s Celebrity Hunted on the week we meet – has irritated some of his colleagues, who claim he intervenes “just to get in the newspapers”. “These guys need their head examined,” he says. In recent days, he has defended universal credit, which he says if done well and properly funded “could be a defining policy of a modern, compassionate Conservative party”. “But if people just run for the hills, we ain’t ever going to bring anyone with us in seats like mine. I’m afraid, they are the ones you need to win if you’re going to win a decent election victory and change the country,” he says.
I sense that it is not just his support of the government that is waning. Is his conservatism under threat? “There’s no doubt about it that my set of values and ethos, I was comfortable that it was aligned with the Conservative party. I’m not as comfortable that that’s the case anymore,” he replies.
Would he have joined the Tories as currently constituted? “If the situation was like it is now, I can safely say there would be absolutely no chance that I would try and be a Member of Parliament.”
How would the Mercer of old cast his vote at an election? “I wouldn’t go and vote,” he replies.
That says a lot, doesn’t it, I ask. “Yes, of course it does. Just being honest, I wouldn’t vote. Of course I wouldn’t, no.”
It seems that Mercer has come out fighting because he is being pushed into a position he no longer feels comfortable with. He warns the Prime Minister that she would be wrong to conclude that the only people who are “going to kick up a stink are those on the extremes”.
That’s why he will continue to speak up when he sees “extreme levels of deprivation and poverty” in his constituency due to cuts to local authorities, while projects like HS2 get the go ahead. “I fundamentally believe that there is far too much investment into London compared to areas like mine in Plymouth. It is wrong,” he adds.
Taking all this into consideration, why wouldn’t he have a crack at the top job?
“My ambition here has always been to be Defence Secretary. I’d love to be a Defence Secretary who had ten years to rip apart that department, make it work, get the offer right to our young people,” he says.
“We are such an amazing, proud military nation. It’s really tough to see what’s going on now. I make no judgment on the current Defence Secretary or others. I just think that I came into politics to reset the relationship between the military and the nation, and I would love to be given the opportunity to do that.
“Going forward, at the end of the day, above everything about being an MP, above being Johnny Mercer, a Conservative or whatever, I’m a patriot.”
With military fervour, he concludes: “I’m not going to sit at the back of the bus and watch it head towards the edge of the cliff. I’m not going to let us go down without a serious shit fight.”