Green Zone to the Green Benches
With his maiden speech – and sleeping bag – getting wide coverage, Riddle sits down with Parliamentary man-of-the-moment, Johnny Mercer MP
Interview by Rupert Watkins, photography by Andy Barnham
The path from the battlefield to the House of Commons is not an untrodden one; Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan spring to mind but more recently Bob Stewart, Penny Mordaunt and Dan Jarvis (to name but a few) have all had their military exploits and expertise bought up and discussed. Over 50 MP’s have – or are serving – in the Regular or Reserve Forces. Adding to this body of military service is the current MP for Plymouth Moor View, Johnny Mercer.
An ex – Royal Artillery Captain (he served in the same Battery at 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery as both the Editor and Creative Director of this magazine as well as 29 (Commando) Regiment), his powerful and fluent maiden speech as well as his decision to sleep on his moored motor cruiser in East London rather than claim high expenses has bought him a degree of media publicity – and praise. Meeting him in his office in Parliament, this unbidden media glare comes across all mere chaff to him. Johnny is exceedingly focused – perhaps even restless – in his determination to get things done.
Johnny deployed on a total of three tours to Afghanistan. On an early tour, he worked in an affiliated intelligence capacity and so was required to brief visiting ministers and senior Whitehall officers. Very early on, he was struck by the influence of ministers, “the power of the elected official” as he puts it. This planted the seed of his current endeavours though it was not until 2010 when on tour with 3RHA when a second major motivation and desire was truly sparked. The ever-increasing number of severe, traumatic battlefield injuries and the increasingly clear gap in veteran’s care hit Johnny hard and he began to ask himself, “How can I change it.”
Having seen and remembered that influence elected ministers and parliamentarians wielded, Johnny resolved to make for Westminster – choosing this above working for military charities or the MoD as, in his words, the Commons, “gives you the power to get stuck in – a platform.” During his resettlement, he sat the Parliamentary Assessment Board, wrote to Bob Stewart – the only ex-Army MP he knew of – for guidance and identified his political party.
It was not just defence that made this ex commando-qualified gunner nail his colours to the Tory mast. Johnny’s core issues revolve around mental health, veteran’s care, Plymouth and young people. Living in Plymouth, he saw widespread deprivation and an ingrained sense of helplessness. A culture of welfare-ism had taken root, “there is a culture of dependency and lack of ambition – dreams have been taken away” as he telling puts it. Given his background and experiences this was especially galling to him. As he expounds in detail, an over-encompassing welfare state has meant a person can take home almost £27,000 on benefits and not have the psychological and emotional fulfilment of a job but given tax issues would need closer to £34,000 from paid work to take home the same wage – a ridiculous situation. This erosion of self-worth makes Johnny very supportive of the Tory’s desire to get people into work and end the corrosive culture of excessive state largesse.
After Bob Stewart referred him to Conservative Central Office, Johnny eventually found himself the candidate for Plymouth Moor View. A Labour seat, he had no Central Office aid. Looking to reach out to that most important – and neglected – group the undecided and those who do not vote, Johnny and his wife, Felicity, knocked on every door in the constituency. He bought an old banger of a van and painting “Johnny” on the side threw himself into the task. His campaign and undoubted integrity caught the public imagination and on Election Day in May he was elected with a majority of 1,024 – a 4.3 per cent swing against his incumbent opponent. Given very little help by Conservative Central Office – they didn’t even have his contact details when he won – this unexpected underdog victory has meant Johnny has a healthy and independent disregard for the odder whims and platitudes emanating from the Whip’s office and Tory HQ; essential for a good parliamentarian.
His military experience certainly helped upon his arrival at the Palace of Westminster. Used to chaotic handover/ takeovers on tour, the whirlwind two day induction and as well as the need to set up his own Commons and constituency offices was nothing unusual and he is full of praise for the mentoring support both Common officials and senior MPs give. Late night voting and all night sittings are still, even in this new family friendly institution, not extinct – he was recently voting until 2 am (there is a camp bed in the Mercer office). Connecting the two offices and home is a four hour commute.
After the first 100 days – and still after eight months – there is an inevitable sense of frustration, “but you see the whys and how’s it all works.” Along with his publicised maiden speech, Johnny plays an active part on the Commons Defence Select Committee speaking out over the continuing concerns supporting veteran’s care. He recently raised the case of Clive Smith; injured in Helmand in 2010 losing both his limbs, the ex-Royal Engineer has been forced to remortgage his house to afford to fly to Australia to get the cutting edge treatment he needs after waiting on the MoD and NHS for over a year for new limbs.
Given Labour’s current internecine fighting and flirtation with nuclear disarmament – as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s less than stellar appointments – means that, “Labour just doesn’t get defence.” Johnny is contemptuous of Emily Thornberry’s promotion to Shadow Defence Secretary and her claiming an honorary Lieutenant Colonel’s rank due to courts martial work. There is no informal cross-party veterans’ chatter – or any other parliamentary courtesy, indeed Johnny sees the opposition truly turning in on itself, “it’s a present that just keeps on giving.” He is happy defence wise that the latest White Paper has made a solid start to undoing the damage done by the over-hasty equivalent in 2010, pointing to the replacement of the Nimrod MRA4 but even as an ex-soldier, Johnny fully realises the need for defence to be as cost effective as possible.
With his strongly held desire to enter the Commons, Johnny had by no means the most standard transition out of the Army. A non-graduate, having seen transition through his own eyes and the experiences of friends and colleagues aided by service charities, he believes there is still a gaping lack of awareness of the civilian sector, the flexibility required and the commitment a service leaver must emotionally make to fully understand and embrace the next stage of his or her life. Certain advantages shine through, Johnny points to “integrity and honesty” along with a graft ethos as huge, innate pluses than the military can bring to the civilian world. Johnny does not retain huge links with the Royal Artillery – even with 29 Commando in his constituency. “I have many other parts of Plymouth now I represent and fight for so it would be unfair to lean toward one – you need to also look forward in life” he comments.
Despite the bright lights of London, Johnny remains a West Country boy at heart – more comfortable back home and in his constituency than amid the froth and gossip of the Westminster bubble. The political life can be all-encompassing though, “it is hard work to be able to isolate yourself from it” but his family, home and the moors allow him respite.
Since his election, Johnny has garnered his share of the press – not all of it for serious issues. He has had to deny he is a “parliamentary sex god” and endure both questions – and no doubt a lot of corridor banter – about being lathered up for a shower gel commercial (you can take a man out the commandos but not the commando out of the man – Ed). Much has been made of his laudable decision to moor a motor launch near Canary Wharf and live there during the week – this writer finds it more curious as to why any madman would want to keep his “bouncing bomb” (issue sleeping bag to the uninitiated) having handed mine in with a sigh of relief. They are smelly. However, on the subject of “gucci” kit, Johnny now reckons his MacBook to be his most critical accessory – running both his offices off it (rather like the Army, I got the impression Parliamentary IT leaves a trifle to be desired).
The day after Johnny was interviewed, he released his response to a major King’s College London report on veteran’s care. Highly critical of the current system, finding the military got little out of a complex and will-sapping system with ever increasing waiting lists and an NHS system unable to understand the needs of wounded serving and ex-soldiers. One of his major points is the aim to create “good citizens” rather than just, “good veterans” and Johnny backs the concept of a cross departmental Department of Veteran’s Affairs to move care away from a rigidly military (mind-set and language) approach within the MoD.
Throughout the interview, there is the strong sense this new MP is just getting started. With wife, Felicity running their constituency operation, his office seems to be run on similarly brisk lines to his artillery support team; Felicity appears to be signaller, “as she’s very good at chatting and makes a mean brew..!!” whilst his hard working parliamentary aide, Ben, makes a good point man, “to take the flak…!!” This focused MP now has the platform to champion his interests and even time for the occasional gym session – though snorts of laughter from his office when he mentioned he tries to work out “every day” gave that one away… Parliament is keeping this ex forward observer in the thick of it.
His response to the KCL Veteran’s Care Report: www.johnnyforplymouth.co.uk/veterans-care-in-the-united-kingdom-a-sustainable-model-post-2015/