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Johnny Mercer: "I don’t think we do defence particularly well in this country"

Johnny Mercer: 'I don’t think we do defence particularly well in this country'
5 min read

The Defence Select Committee must do more to protect the men and women of our Armed Forces, Johnny Mercer believes. The former Artillery Officer talks to Daniel Bond

It’s now one month since the election which shook the Conservative party, but sitting in Johnny Mercer’s office this week, it feels like the campaign never ended. From his eyrie, high up above Speaker’s Courtyard, Mercer is still in full, fervent election mode as he drums up support for his bid to chair the Defence Select Committee.

We meet in the evening after a full day of media, as Mercer puts the finishing touches to an Op-Ed for the next day’s Evening Standard. After our interview he’s straight off to Sky News to continue making the case for a pay-rise for public sector workers – including members of the Armed Forces. Newsnight, for a discussion on the allegations of wrongdoing in the conflict in Afghanistan, will shortly follow.

With the Conservatives still gripped by the fallout from their disastrous election, the 35-year-old Mercer is quickly emerging as one of the key figures in a new generation of MPs ready to flex their muscles and take on their party’s old guard. Young, ambitious, energetic and – with the leadership diminished and demoralised – impossible to ignore.

Just over two years into his career as an MP, the former Royal Artillery captain surprised colleagues when he threw his hat into the ring to chair one of the major committees, challenging the incumbent, the 65-year-old Julian Lewis, a defence expert and Tory MP of more than two decades. But Mercer has gained a high profile over his short time in Parliament for his interventions on veteran affairs, his backing for modernisation – “I’m not here to be part of the Conservative party from the 1990s,” he said last year – and, most recently, his outspoken support for lifting the public sector pay cap.

He praises Lewis as “a great guy who has done a great job”, but says the Committee’s approach is out of date in an era where the “character of conflict is changing”. “We need to be more modern, more up to date, more forward thinking and more agile in what we do, so that what we do is ultimately more relevant to defence conversations today,” he says. “What do we as a country want from our defences? What is the strategy? What is the idea, what are we working towards, what sort of wars are we going to fight? It’s those key questions that I really want to get in the detail of.”

But crucially, he says the Committee also has to recognise its unique responsibility to represent the interests of service personnel – a group he says has been poorly served by the political class for years.

“I think the committee can be absolutely forward looking and forward thinking in how it does its work around strategy, and equipment and holding different departments within the MoD to account. But I also think it has that role of ensuring that we look after people and that the way we employ people is correct.

“As you see the character of conflict changing and defence trying to keep up with that, I see the Defence Select Committee as the primary body, as almost the final arbiters, in looking after our men and women – making sure they’re correctly equipped, correctly resourced, deployed correctly, and correctly looked after afterwards.”

 “I see it as an opportunity to hold the MoD firmly to account. I don’t think we do defence particularly well in this country. I think we have some extraordinarily gifted people who serve. Has that been reflected in their political masters over the last ten or fifteen years? I’d argue not.

“I would seek to correct that. One of my primary drivers in this place has been to close that gap between what we say and what we actually do. What we say at that despatch box and how it feels for our men and women. I want to make sure that we don’t just talk about being a proud military nation, but we actually deliver on it as well.”

If he wins, he pledges to look into retention – “why are we still haemorrhaging people from our forces?” – historical inquiries – “I’m not prepared to accept the fact that those who serve in operations should forever be subject to recriminations and an attempt to rewrite history, and if the government isn’t going to protect them then I most certainly will” – and mental health. “That’s a huge one for me,” he says. “I think it’s something that hasn’t been prioritised for a long time, it hasn’t had the spend on it, it hasn’t had the attention it needs. I’m convinced, if you do things properly, if you intervene early enough with these blokes, if you give them a chance to resettle and get back into civilian life, if you intervene earlier with mental health problems, if you intervene earlier on procurement changes, if you’re proactive as an MoD – and as a select committee – you can make real changes, tangible changes that will affect our people’s lives and make them better.

“That’s what I want to do. I make no bones about it, that was one of my primary drivers for coming here, having served throughout these conflicts I was fed up of the way the military was inherently treated by their political masters, and this would be a fantastic opportunity to challenge that.

“I think we’re very lucky with the people we’ve got who serve, but I do think that we are beginning to get to a tipping point where we’re asking far too much of them, and that needs to be matched by a commitment from government that it is not only prepared to ask them to do stuff, but to give them the resources and the powers and the backing to actually go and do it, and that’s where I want to intervene. ” 

Johnny Mercer is Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View

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