As someone who works in Parliament some of the time, to say the atmosphere at the moment is febrile does not do it justice.
Parties are fraying at the seams, traditional loyalties have long gone and ordinary Parliamentary business is being pushed to the periphery.
Unusual, bizarre, ridiculous, remarkable. All words that could be used to describe the current political climate. In fact, when protestors stripped naked and glued themselves to the gallery in the Commons chamber, it felt like a normal day!
But, irrespective of all this going on, sitting down with Johnny Mercer, the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Moor View, you wouldn’t suspect any of this was happening. An army veteran of three tours of Afghanistan, Westminster at the moment is just another day in the office. We started off by discussing his early childhood. He grew up in an intensely religious Baptist household as one of eight siblings. It was a household that many might describe as abnormal today: no pop music, television or even jeans.
“I grew up in Purley in South London and Crowborough in Sussex and I think it was a challenging time but I think lots of people have an upbringing that’s pretty difficult and it was another one of those.”
‘I developed a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I have kind of had all the way through. When you’re a young man it’s hard to really understand what’s going on but as you get older it gets easier to understand you can get better. You can treat and manage this challenge.”
Immediately you could understand what drives the man, particularly an area that is close to his heart: mental health.
“That’s the reason I speak out because actually if I had seen someone 15 years ago speaking out about OCD when I was young, like I do today, it would have helped me enormously.”
Since he was elected in 2015 as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Moor View, mental health and veteran care (sometimes heavily overlapping issues) have been his priorities.
His election was an unexpected victory to say the least. Not even Lynton Crosby, the party’s strategist, gave him much of a chance because of the nature of the seat.
It wasn’t long before we got chatting about what he wants for the area he has represented for almost exactly 4 years:
“In Plymouth I want to improve the life chances of every girl and boy growing up across our city. I will do everything I can across health, transport, education, public service, housing, mental health provision – across all these sectors – to improve their chances. So they can have the same opportunities in life as those who grow up in the richest parts in London.”
Despite being a London boy, it is the city of Plymouth that has always had his heart, a love affair that goes back to his early days in the military.
“I have been here [in Plymouth] for about 20 years. 29 Commando was my home in the Citadel on the Hoe. When I was 19 or 20 down in the Citadel, Albion used to be a regular Saturday afternoon. We would all do our business in the morning and get down there and end up in Union Street in the evening – and that was a way of life for us.”
‘It’s quite interesting really because I live just up the Tamar Valley now, just north of Plymouth, just outside the constituency, and my opponents constantly go on about their love and history of Plymouth.
‘In reality, yes I live just outside the constituency, but I have been in and around Plymouth for around 20 years. That is my home. It’s not for these guys – they went back there at the first…sniff of getting a Parliamentary seat. Hypocrisy is something that I have had to get used to.”
As you can see, Johnny doesn’t mince his words – something which has come to separate him from many of his Parliamentary colleagues. What also distinguishes him is his military background. But the British Army wasn’t his first job. He did a short stint with a financial company in London.
“Working in a financial institution in the city of London seemed to be, as a young person, a fate worse than death.”
It’s safe to say then that that wasn’t going to be his calling. Johnny was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery after passing out from Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in June 2003 and was promoted to Lieutenant in April 2005.
He did three tours of Afghanistan as a liaison and training officer with Afghan forces attached to a Special Forces unit, and as a co-ordinator of artillery and air strikes in support of ground operations. Mercer retired from military service in December 2013 with the rank of Captain.
During his tours of duty, he suffered a great personal tragedy when his friend Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler was shot dead next to him. This has traumatised him ever since, as described in his fascinating memoir We Were Warriors.
Notwithstanding this, he addresses his time in the army with unconditional pride: ‘It was a privilege to command men and women. It was a privilege to be in the army at the time that I was to fight for my country.”
After leaving the military, he made a jump which could be seen as unexpected for a man who had never voted, until he voted for himself in 2015. He then entered politics.
“My [early] life wasn’t touched by [politics] at all. Then when I went into the military, it’s completely apolitical. I should have voted but I didn’t. You get into a mindset, particularly in operations, when you’re going to go on operations anyway. So you don’t involve yourself emotionally in that process, so you don’t go and vote. I should have done but I just didn’t. That’s how I felt. When you’re in an operational cycle of going away every summer – frankly you’ve got other things to do.”
Going into politics was “largely about the disconnect between the military and the country. The way politicians talked a very good game and the contrast between that and the service and the sacrifice and the values and the ethos of the people that actually conducted the mission. It was very stark for me and very difficult to process.”
Johnny funded his 2015 election campaign ‘on the cheap’ by working on building sites. But, in what could be a first for a Parliamentary candidate, also starred in a Dove Men+Care shower-gel advert.
“Dove like to use real men in their adverts as opposed to models, so I’m not sure whether or not I should be offended that they chose me!”
On the first time of asking, Johnny was elected to represent the people of Plymouth.
“My first experience was I was really surprised they had built a Tube station right in Parliament. So they didn’t even have to get their hair wet from the train to work! That was my first thought of Parliament.”
The first year of Parliament was not a comfy one, however. To save costs on accommodation, Johnny decided to stay on a houseboat in East London.
“One of the worst years of my life. Terrible, terrible decision. It wasn’t designed to be lived on. I broke everything, the hot water, the toilet, I was getting ill, it was damp, but I paid for it for a year so I had to stay there. I was going back to a sleeping bag every night, drinking whiskey to get myself through it!”
The humorous anecdotes to the side, he had some strong motivations that drove him in politics.
“I am one of these people that come [to Parliament] with a cause. I never intended on being a politician, I had no ambition to be a politician when I was a young man but I see this place as a vehicle to get things done. To make real change. I come here with those causes to unashamedly improve the blight of some sectors of society which perhaps feel left behind.”
For many people, they are born into the party they support, but
others come to them later in life. Though his reasons for not voting may sound familiar to many people across the country.
“It was clear to me that the way I thought and the way I saw the world and the way I saw Britain, was as a Conservative. But I did not vote. Why didn’t I vote? Because I felt like no one stood for me. Because I felt they weren’t really like me.
‘If you take seminal issues of division between Labour and Tories, like poverty which has always been one of my main missions, Labour have always thought that the best way to improve that is to improve personal income to try and get them across some kind of arbitrary line. The Tories have a different view. Their view is that you put all your money into schemes and ladders of opportunity to get people out of poverty, to sustainable employment, and to tackle the causes of poverty to improve their lives. Family breakdown, lack of skills and education, workless households. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”
In his usual no holds barred manner, he took the opportunity to question the current state of the Conservative Party.
“I think my Conservativism is more representative of the country than that which has been practised here for a long period of time. It has always been clear to me that I am a Conservative, I just have firm views on what that should represent.”
Three of the four years that Johnny has been an MP, the political climate has been dominated by Brexit. It isn’t something that has inspired confidence in his own Government, saying recently in an interview that ‘when you go home 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 s**tshow”.
His views haven’t lightened since that interview.
“There are people out there in the country who are just aching for us to answer the really important questions. Some people just want a GP appointment, they just want politics to work, they just want to be able to get the train home at the weekend, they just want to be able to use the NHS and know it’s there…This stuff isn’t difficult. The problem is that if we think the purity of this Brexit argument is reflected in Okehampton, Plymouth, Dartmoor – I am afraid that we are absolutely deluding ourselves.
‘We are in parlous times. We have to be very careful as we chart a path forward. For me there are worse outcomes than the two worst outcomes that people are currently talking about which is a customs union or No Deal Brexit. There are outcomes that involve other people becoming Prime Minister who I don’t think represent this country. There are worse outcomes than people’s trust in politics, which could harm us for a generation which means we won’t have the political capital to reform.”
His passion has always been, and continues to be, veteran care – the whole reason that he got into politics. I asked him what he considered to be his greatest achievement since becoming an MP. His answer was predictably full of compassion for those who have served Britain.
“Shutting down the Iraq Historical Allegations Team. Which was this team set up by the MOD as a sop to individuals like Phil Shiner, who decided to completely abuse human rights law, and make allegations that there were serious numbers of very serious war crimes taking place in Iraq. Clearly any organisation has challenges around its employees and the military is no different. But to suggest that there was a complete breakdown in law and order in the British Army between 2003 and 2006 is absolutely for the birds.
‘The way that [Westminster] just folded and allowed the MOD to set up private investigation teams to just go and knock on veterans doors – who maybe left 2 or 3 years ago and just settling in to civilian life. Some people have been investigated 6 or 7 times in 10 years – they’ve lost their health, their sanity, their family. I was very lucky as I was on the Defence Committee and it gave me a platform to rip this thing apart. That makes being an MP worth it.”
In the current state the Conservative Party finds itself in, there are any number of potential candidates that could step forward to take over from Theresa May. I asked if he may be one of them. His answer was typically coy but true to where his heart is:
“I have always said I would like to run the MOD one day.”
It’s easy when you are interviewing politicians to forget they are people too. With families that they hardly see, with hobbies they barely have time to do – with everyday lives they have chosen to sacrifice. I therefore finished my interview with Johnny asking about life outside of Parliament.
“I am one of these people that gets away from Parliament as fast
as I can. Get back to the South West, go for a good run across
Dartmoor, go surfing on one of the northern beaches, spend time with my family – I don’t see my family anywhere near enough. I don’t even have a house in London because I find the transition from Dartmoor to London very challenging so I just live in a hotel.”
Johnny returns home to his wife Felicity and daughters Joey and Amalie as quickly as he can.
“I am still convinced, because Felicity is so good on the doors, that people are convinced they are actually voting for her. That’s a secret that must never get out!”
I like to end with a nice little round-up that sums up the interviewee’s life and their relationship to Dartmoor. However, I think the anecdote Johnny told me as we finished sums it up better than I ever could have done.
“When I was 19 years old, I had never been to Dartmoor in my life, and I was on this course in the military. Basically, you’d have your kit ready to go for what they called ‘an exercise at any moment’.
‘You would have 7 different maps of training areas in the UK, they’d never tell you where you were going. So you get in the back of a Bedford, and it could be half an hour or 15 hours to Scotland or 8 hours to Dartmoor, 9 hours to Wales.
“I remember we left on a Sunday afternoon and on the Sunday night, the wind and the rain was horizontal, and I just got booted out the back of this Bedford and I looked across Dartmoor, I had no idea where I was. I could see the Moor, I could see the wind and the rain, and the Tors, and I thought ‘this is home’.”