Johnny Mercer interview: I worry about the Tory party going out to the right

Written by David Singleton on 25 February 2016 in Interview
Interview
The Plymouth MP talks about compassionate conservatism, the effect of Jeremy Corbyn on his party... and spending the winter on a freezing houseboat.

Is hard man MP Johnny Mercer about to throw in the towel? As a former captain with the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan, Mercer has plenty of experience of surviving in difficult conditions. But even the former Army man may not have been fully prepared for what he was about to face when he decided to live on a boat while working in the Commons.

"I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea,” he confides. “The carpet’s been wet for about two and a half months, it’s bloody cold and it’s not that comfortable. I’m sort of in it now, so we’ll see how long it lasts."

The Plymouth Moor View MP bought the small Motor Cruiser with money from his military retirement. After unexpectedly winning his seat last year, he decided to bring the boat up from the South coast and it is now moored near Canada Water.

By staying there rather than renting a flat in the capital, Mercer will claim just £2,400 a year in accommodation expenses, although he insists that is not why he does it.

"I choose to do it because I enjoy camping and I enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. I enjoy getting back and getting into my sleeping bag and being in an environment where my family have been, rather than going to a faceless hotel room. That’s the truth of it….

"But I may have to fall on my sword. As it gets busier in this place it gets harder. You get home at 10 o’ clock at night and it would be nice to just crawl into a nice warm bed."

Yet if Mercer is struggling to recharge his batteries at the end of the day, few in Westminster have noticed anything amiss. Having made a name for himself in a number of ways, the rugged politician is widely spoken of as a rising star by both his Tory backbench colleagues and Downing Street insiders.

Mercer’s big aim is improving veterans’ care and he is running various campaigns to this effect. He is pushing for a world-class 24-hour mental health facility to be installed in Plymouth and has penned a report calling for total reform of veteran’s care across the UK.

"The prime minister absolutely gets the commitment that we have towards out Armed Forces veterans. We have systemic problems that have been historical. And I think we need a fundamental shift from looking at what we put into the system,” he says.

"So we’ve created Veterans UK, we’ve created the Military Covenant, we’ve got the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. But stop looking at it like that, turn around and think there’s a veterans’ community of armed forces personnel, what does it feel like for them that we’ve actually done?

"There are too many people coming forward, too many falling through the gaps, too many who tell me a different story to what I hear from the MoD. So I will keep plugging away."

The treatment of war veterans was also the subject matter for Mercer’s memorable maiden speech, for which he was applauded across Westminster. Reflecting on that address back in November, Mercer is supremely modest:

"Always in this place you see far more capable colleagues. Their delivery is very good and they’re far very powerful in what they say, they hold the Chamber. And I didn’t do that in that speech.

"But what it did show me is that if the message is right, it can catch on. I’ve got a lot of work to do on my oratory, but for me it’s about getting the message across that there’s a group of guys, my generation, there’s a warrior generation out there that we have put through 15 years of conflict and we now have a duty to look after."

And then there is the Dove Men shower gel advert, which was unearthed on the internet last year and was recently broadcast in the U.S. Does he welcome the publicity that the advert has generated?

"It’s just one of those things, I’m not embarrassed about it, I’m not proud of it," insists Mercer.

Pushed on the subject, he adds with a pointed smile: "Obviously I don’t want to be known for the rest of my life as the guy who took his kit off for an advert. I’m hoping to achieve slightly more than that.

"Although my aims and expectations are extremely low, they are slightly above becoming famous for an advert."

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Mercer was born in Kent to Navy family. He had not previously voted before the 2015 election and only joined the Conservatives after deciding that he wanted to get elected and use Parliament as a platform for change.

The Plymouth MP cannot easily be accused of towing the party line at all costs. As George Osborne faced a backlash last year over his planned tax credit cuts, Mercer urged the chancellor to find "something, anything that might mitigate the harshest effects of this policy on our most vulnerable".

After nine months on the backbenches, how convinced is he of being in the right party?

"I’m absolutely convinced I’m in the right party. For me a political party is a broad church. It is about compassionate conservatism, that is the only form of conservatism that I recognise, that I adhere to. I accept that not everybody agrees with that… Does that mean I would be comfortable anywhere else? Absolutely not.

"I think the Labour party is a tragedy at the moment, I think the people in charge of it are wilfully destroying an institution in this country and that’s really sad because there are some brilliant Labour Members of Parliament who work really had for their constituencies and really believe in what they’re doing."

As for the effect on his own party, Mercer is concerned that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is likely to push the Tories to the right.

"We came up with something at the last election and a majority of people in this country did not choose it. So to keep us on the centre ground we need a good opposition to hold us to account," he explains.

"People like me worry about the party going out to the right. Because the centre ground is where it’s at, that’s where the British people are. And that’s where we have to be if we really are going to enact what the prime minister talks about as One Nation politics – we’re not there, we have some distance to go.

"That’s where I think the answer lies. The answer in my view does not lie in gradually creeping out to the right, which some of us may be concerned about if there is not a strong opposition holding us to account."

It is perhaps no surprise that the ex-Army man is particularly scathing about Labour’s defence policy rumblings.

He says: "I do wonder if this is all a practical joke. It’s not that these ideas are tactically or strategically flawed. They are well beyond that - in the sphere of a complete joke. The idea that you would transport troops on a submarine around the globe, that you would have nuclear missiles without any missiles on them as thought that was going to deter anybody from doing anything. I just think it’s really sad."

Looking across the pond, Mercer is similarly concerned about what is happening to the Republican party from the other end of the political spectrum. But he says he cannot resist coverage of the US presidential race.

"I think it’s fascinating and it’s my guilty pleasure at the moment to stay up late or to download some podcasts.  I can’t see Donald Trump winning. I think his sort of populist ideas will only go so far. I sincerely hope people will wake up before they let him anywhere near power."

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We are meeting in Westminster in the days before David Cameron’s EU deal has been finalised – and Mercer does not make it clear how he will be voting at this stage.

A few days later, the MP is out of the country with the defence committee and I’m told that he has not had a chance to look in detail at the prime minister's negotiations. “Like his constituents, he only has one vote, and he very much sees his role as ensuring that both sides of the argument are put to the people of Plymouth to enable all to make an informed decision on this very important matter,” says an aide.

Mercer is more forthcoming on the question of who should be next Tory leader. But his answer is dangerously close to invalid. Asked whether George Osborne or Boris Johnson should be next to occupy the hotseat, he plumps for a third option: "David Cameron, I think he should stay."

And what of the inconvenient fact that Cameron has promised not to fight the next election as Tory leader? "Then I’ll keep trying to persuade him to stay," he says, sounding very much like a man not used to taking no for an answer.

On his own political ambitions, Mercer rules nothing out. But he makes it clear that he is not exactly champing at the bit to become a minister.

“My family is everything. So something that required me to be in London longer than I needed to be as a backbencher, it’s not something I would jump at.

“For me, it’s all about this place being a vehicle and what effect you can have. So if it was something where I could affect change, deliver what I’m trying to deliver on whether it’s mental health of veterans, or life chances then that’s a different matter. But if it’s taking a job for the sake of career ambitions then it’s not going to happen.”

While some politicians enjoy nothing more than the power of high office and the intrigue of SW1, it is hard to imagine Mercer ever fitting into this mould. Many parliamentarians like to give the impression that they are far removed from the Westminster bubble, but the Plymouth MP is more convincing than most.

“For me it’s all about life chances, it’s all about understanding why, in 21st century Britain, in a city like Plymouth, we have some serious areas of deprivation,” he says.

"I spent last weekend at a children’s home, there are some horrific stories. People suffer under the misapprehension that it’s people's own fault if they’re addicted to drink or drugs or whatever - and it could not be further from the truth. But for a bit of bad luck and a couple of bad decision that could be me."

It is an attitude that perhaps helps the new parliamentarian to put things in perspective as he heads back to his freezing boat near Canada Water after a hard day in the Commons.

As our interview in Portcullis House in the Palace of Westminster winds up, all that remains is to establish whether or not Mercer really is considering quitting the boat and finding a hotel for the last few days of winter.

Put to him like that, the hardy MP is suddenly adamant that he will not be doing any such thing. Especially when I suggest it would make a great story.

"What! How I caved because it got too cold? I spent the last 12 years avoiding caving in because it got too cold. I’m not going to start now."

And then what may be the ultimate motivation behind Mercer’s admirable staying power emerges.

"It would be dreadfully humiliating if I had to go. Not so much in this place, but my old military mates would be queuing up to laugh at me."

 

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