Johnny Mercer: "We Need To Bring The Authenticity And Something Genuine Back To Politics"
The controversial Overseas Operations Bill forced its way through the Commons unamended, despite claims from campaigners that it legalised torture by the armed forces. It did so in large part due to the combative performances of ex-soldier and veterans minister Johnny Mercer. Alain Tolhurst caught up with him the day after third reading
How is Johnny Mercer feeling after a bruising, rancorous debate in Parliament the previous afternoon, where he accused MPs speaking against the Overseas Operations Bill of being “disingenuous” and talking “complete rubbish”?
The 39-year-old takes a long, deep breath, and after a pause, replies: “I became a politician because people in the House of Commons seem unable to move from saying really nice things about our armed forces with a really solemn face to actually doing something to improve their life.
“You know, it's the easiest thing in the world to say ‘oh, isn't this a terrible injustice’, but not be willing to actually apply any intellectual horsepower to the problem, and just repeat ad nauseam things that aren't true.
“And I'm afraid, you know, the reality is that I came here to call that sort of stuff out. I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to be the voice of people who had, in my view, been completely forgotten about by governments of all colours over the years.”
After he refused an intervention as he wound up the debate, saying the House had “suffered enough”, a veteran political journalist tweeted that it was a good line, but that he suspected “this minister's sharp tongue will cut him.”
For now, Mercer doesn’t seem too worried about such a proposition: “Colleagues are sometimes surprised, you know, when I call them out, but I kind of don't know what they're expecting?
“If they are again to repeat something they know, that I know, that they know, is not true, I'm not just going to go along with it because it's decorum in the House of Commons.
“I'm going to call it out, because that's what I would have wanted a politician to do when I was serving. So you know, it is what it is.”
I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to be the voice of people who had been completely forgotten about by governments of all colours
While the former Royal Artillery Captain clearly enjoys the fight, his attitude clearly comes from a heartfelt belief that he should change how fellow veterans are treated.
“So for 40 years this injustice has gone on, particularly when it comes to our people in Northern Ireland, and people have said for a long time, ‘isn't it terrible our pensioners are getting dragged back to court?’
“Nobody is prepared to do anything about it at all. And I could see why. Because the debate is very contested. There’s a lot of private interests, dare I say.”
But as well as suggesting the bill risks preventing legitimate claims of torture – which he dismisses – Labour also say it will not actually prevent the sort of multiple re-investigations of soldiers that Mercer himself has railed against.
Unsurprisingly that gets short shrift too: "I think lots of my dear colleagues… struggle with the detail of this bill. I cannot design legislation that means if someone comes forward with an accusation we're not going to investigate, right?...
"If you come forward with legislation, you say ‘right time's up, no more investigations’, that is an amnesty. And they don't want that either, which is why it's so disingenuous.”
Warming to his theme, he gives a resounding yes when asked if Tories in general should speak out more and defend their record: “I've always said this, you know, we are currently far, far too nice when it comes to this stuff.
“We have done some incredibly impressive things over the last nine or 10 years. Have we got everything right? Of course we haven't, we've made serious misjudgments at certain points under all the prime ministers we've had.
“Nothing's perfect, but you take a city like mine in Plymouth okay; 2010, guys leaving my regiment coming out as Corporals, pretty skilled jobs, going on to a life on benefits because state welfare was higher and gave them more money. I couldn't blame them for that, because I'd do exactly the same, you want to provide money for your children.
“Well, the Tories said ‘actually, the single biggest factor to improve your life chances is having a job’, and so they came forward with a series of policies that are going to improve employment.
“Unemployment before the pandemic is down 50%, and that is the single biggest thing that changes the life chances of some of my poorest kids in Plymouth who don't have anywhere near the levels of opportunity I think they should have.
“And we did that. But we never talked about it. We never talked about poverty. In my mind, the Tories, we should be the poverty-fighting party.”
In a dig at those who sit opposite him in the chamber he adds: “How people who live in Islington million-pound houses, who haven’t got a clue what it's like to get on the bus in the morning in Plymouth, think they own poverty? I mean, it's just a joke to the rest of us.”
He says “people need a good, modern, compassionate Conservative Party to improve their lives”, but the ‘compassionate conservatism’ brand has taken a pretty sizeable hit recently after Tory MPs lined up to vote against Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, then got into unseemly rows on social media about it.
Mercer himself came under fire for posting a picture of himself out running on Dartmoor two days later, tweeting that after a “end-of-week clear-the-head session, it all seems ok”.
“Look, it was an immensely difficult week, it was harder than the Cummings episode,” he reflects.
“And for someone like me who's in a seat that we've never held before, that's poured their life and energy into getting the biggest majority anyone's ever had now in Plymouth, weeks like last week are very, very difficult. not only for me, but for my team who do this every day in casework, changing people's lives.
“It's very, very difficult, and I hope that the government handles it much better in future.”
At the time of the interview, it seemed the government could easily find itself in the same position come the next school holiday, with Tories accused of taking food away from hungry children at Christmas.
“Yeah that won’t happen,” Mercer snapped, adding: “the people working in that policy area are now under no illusions” that a plan was needed.
A few days after the interview, Boris Johnson announced a winter grant scheme starting next month.
As a “professional minister” Mercer says he is having conversations behind the scenes, rather than in public as he did when he was a backbencher. But his ability to be a “professional minister” can be called into question given his use of Twitter, where he can be even more outspoken than at the despatch box.
Earlier in the week he referred to another ex-soldier turned MP Dan Jarvis', citation of Major Bob Campbell, a soldier who faced repeated investigation over the death of an Iraqi teenager, as the “crowning turd in the water pipe” in a rebuttal of an article criticising the Overseas Operation Bill.
Mercer claimed Jarvis had ignored Major Campbell when he had previously asked him for help, and asked what he thought of him now being cited as a reason to amend the legislation he says: “What am I supposed to do with that? Just go 'oh yeah, good point, well done', or go hang on a second, how stupid do you think I am?
“I'm just not having it. We need to bring the authenticity and something genuine back to politics.”
Yet despite these incidents, he is still critical of those on his own side who have been sucked into the culture war on social media: “It's kind of the preserve of the so-called self-appointed kind of intellectual elite right, who think they basically know everything about politics, come into politics to get a safe seat and suddenly they’re the high priests of modern conservatism.
“In my view, it's just bollocks.”
In my mind, the Tories, we should be the poverty-fighting party
As veterans minister Mercer was in charge of sorting out a very different looking Remembrance Sunday this year, but he was much less excised than others about the prospect of it being done virtually.
“It’s going to be a different experience this year, but I don't think it should be any less special.
“You know, when I came back from a particularly difficult tour in 2010, I couldn't actually bring myself to go to Remembrance Sunday, because I found the gap between the experience that I'd left behind in Afghanistan, and how people conducted themselves on Remembrance Sunday, particularly politicians at the cenotaph, looking very sombre and reflective, while at the same time making people walk around with the worst prosthetics in Europe.
"I just couldn't, I couldn't bear it. And actually, in those days, I used to go to just the little village memorial with my wife and kids. And that's as special to me, you know - I find public remembrance in some ways is quite a private thing, I think, and I find it in public harder in some ways.”
He is proud to be the veterans minister, and a year after the Office for Veterans' Affairs was set up he says it has had “good tactical success”, but adds: “the challenge is turning that into a strategic change in this country to what it feels like to be a veteran”.
But he says while it is “a fight within government to get that voice heard”, he has found other departments “really forward-leaning”, and was full of praise for Boris Johnson.
“I can't tell you what a difference this Prime Minister has made on the veterans thing, and that, you know, I'm afraid I'm no sycophant as everyone knows over the last five or six years, right.
“But the reality is that this guy has shifted the dial for veterans in this country. And I pay tribute to him for that.”
One big outstanding issue though, is the issues facing veterans from Operation Banner, the official name for the military’s role during the Troubles. The Overseas Operation Bill does not cover their actions as they took place on UK soil, and any legislation needs to come from the Northern Ireland office.
“I'm very comforted by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis' commitments on those things,” Mercer says.
“I would not have brought forward this bill without those assurances of equal treatment okay, because I am simply not prepared to leave these people behind.
“Brandon has promised legislation before Christmas, and I will support him 100% in the Prime Minister's aims and ambition.”
Johnny Mercer is the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View and veterans minister.
Correction: Johnny Mercer referred to Dan Jarvis' citation of Major Bob Campbell as "the crowning turd in the water pipe". An earlier version of this post misstated the context for this statement.