Even to Johnny Mercer the title ‘member of parliament’ seems odd. The former army captain turned Tory MP hadn’t planned on getting into politics, let alone on carrying those two heavily loaded letters after his name. Before he was elected in 2015, he’d never even voted.
Given that, rumours there is already talk of him as a future Conservative leader/prime minister are extraordinary. While officially he won’t lay claim to such ambitions, sources inside Westminster say there are moves afoot to position him, should Theresa May find herself out of a job once the curtain has fallen on the Brexit horror show.
If that sounds far-fetched, remember that 12 months is a long time in politics. Still, the prospect seems unlikely. Outside Parliament, perhaps with the exception of his Plymouth constituency, not much is known about the largely untested 36-year-old.
“Politics isn’t dead, people just want it done differently”
There was the moment before the last – derided – cabinet reshuffle when his name suddenly appeared on the front pages of the broadsheets, with some suggesting he would be fast-tracked into a ministerial role (he wasn’t), and then earlier this week he found himself sucked into Owen Jones’s vanity vortex, after the publicity-hungry left-wing activist mocked him on Twitter for cowardice. Fellow thunderers lined up to remind Jones that Mercer is a veteran of three tours of Afghanistan. Questions this week about the government’s response to the crisis in Syria have also pitched him into the limelight, his experience of the front line making him unusually qualified to comment on military action from inside the Westminster Bubble.
But what of the man himself? In person, Mercer is warm and confident. We meet in the Houses of Parliament and he strides across his pokey office and greets me genially, firm handshake, big smile, loud voice, before inviting me to sit on a tired-looking sofa under the eaves. ‘Now, what are we doing here?’ he says in that distinct ex-military way, team-playing while asserting control.
There are a few things I want to talk to him about. How an apolitical man ended up in Government for starters, but I also want to pick his brains about some of his passion projects – defence, war veterans and mental health. He says it was how ex-servicemen are treated on rejoining civilian life that spurred him to stand for election in the first place, and the mental health issues many of them are suffering.
‘In 2012 more servicemen and women took their own lives than were actually killed in conflict,’ says the married father of two, doing his best to lean forward from a slouchy armchair. ‘And I thought: “I’m just not prepared to put up with this. If I really want to change something, something I fundamentally believe in, I’ll have to get elected.’”
Arguably, he wouldn’t be the first person to come to such a conclusion. But it says a lot for him that not only did he act on the thought and get himself selected, he then won a seat he wasn’t given a chance of winning, extending his original 2015 majority in last year’s General Election with more than 50 per cent of the vote. How did he do that?
“If you give people something to vote for then they vote for you. And they did”
‘Look, politics isn’t dead, people just want it done differently,’ he says, starting to sound like a politician. ‘What do people want from politics? They want to know that you care. They want to know that the Government cares, that you’ve got an interest in their life and that you are prepared to help them. That’s quite a low benchmark in reality, but we haven’t met it, and so people’s participation in elections has gone down and people’s view of politicians has gone down.’
Unschooled in politics (‘the vast majority didn’t care, they didn’t vote – and I was one of them,’ he says of his former self), he took a boots on the ground approach to getting elected. ‘When you get taught to campaign, you get taught to go after key groups. So Tory voters read The Telegraph, drive a nice car, whatever – so you go and knock on their door. Meanwhile, Labour voters are a different demographic. I didn’t buy any of that. I got a map of Plymouth, I divided it all up into how many houses I could do a day, and I did everybody. Because I believed that if you went out and gave people something to vote for then they would come and vote for you. And they did.’
Since being elected, he says he’s spent around 40 per cent of his time on local issues, and 30 per cent each on mental health and military matters. Not surprisingly, it’s the last that gets him attention. ‘Military matters are clickbait,’ he says, trying to explain why the growing assumption is that’s all he cares about. He does care intensely, though, and his maiden speech in the House of Commons was about the plight of soldiers. One of the first things he did on being elected was to fight the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), a government organisation set up to investigate allegations of civilian abuse by soldiers in Iraq.
“Mental health is something we should be thinking about every day”
‘Basically, it was going after soldiers and trying to prosecute them for crimes or perceived crimes in Iraq,’ he says. ‘I don’t know anybody who served who does not want bad apples prosecuted – we hold ourselves to high standards, and we’re very proud to. This was not that. This was a witch hunt facilitated by the MOD against its own people.’
It became clear that cash was being paid for stories, many of which were fabricated, landing former armed forces personnel in hot water, accused of abuse that never happened. IHAT was shut down in June last year, Mercer claiming victory. ‘A few weeks ago, one of the facilitators in this process came forward and said he’d made it all up,’ he says. ‘The MOD lost its moral compass on this issue.’
Talk of leading the country may be premature, but the idea of a man with front-line experience walking into the Ministry of Defence seems far less unlikely. And he’s not shy to pitch for the job. ‘I would like to be Defence Secretary one day, yes,’ he says frankly. ‘That’s the job I said I wanted when I came into politics. The department needs someone to go in there and rip the ass out of it from top to bottom and reform that department. And I’d love to do that.’
Does he think the current Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, the surprise appointment in that reshuffle, is doing a good job? ‘Um…’ he starts. ‘You can’t tell if Gavin Williamson has done a good job until the Defence Modernising Programme review comes back,’ he says, looking uncomfortable for the first time. It is, after all, not long since Williamson told Russia to ‘go away and shut up’, not a line you imagine Mercer would be content to offer Western antagonists.
What then of his views on mental health? Having seen former colleagues battle their demons on returning from war, Mercer is only too aware of the impact mental health can have on individuals and families.
‘The key thing around mental health is the dislocation between mental illness and mental health,’ he says. ‘Mental health is a normal every day thing for everybody. Mental illness is completely separate. But until we separate the two of them, people won’t really take mental health seriously. Mental illness is something you need help with, professional treatment, evidence-based care. Mental health is something we should be thinking about every day. Because ultimately, if we don’t, we’re going to swamp the system and not get to those who are mentally ill.’
“People like to be part of something, they like to be led”
He talks of parity of esteem, the catchphrase for campaigners looking to see physical and mental health backed with equivalent resources, but also parity of opportunity. ‘If we’re going to fundamentally change the debate around healthcare in this country, we have to talk about how we live healthy, fulfilling lives. Only 10 percent of what goes into making someone healthy, happy and living longer is healthcare. The rest is having a job, housing, family, friends, hobbies… But until we make it so that no matter the circumstances of your birth, your opportunities will be the same, the average disparity in this country won’t change.’
It’s heartening, largely bipartisan fare, no coincidence perhaps, given Mercer is the surprise politician. On other matters of the day, such as Brexit, he’s clearly less well versed and content simply to toe the party line (‘it’s going to happen, and we are going to make a success of it.’). But ultimately, his ability to climb the greasy Westminster pole will be determined by perceptions of him as leader, and, more specifically, by whether people will vote for him and his yet-to-be-defined brand of Conservatism.
His officer training (he’s lost none of his Sandhurst twang) has given him a traditional understanding of hierarchy and of how leadership works. ‘People like to be part of something, they like to be led,’ he insists. ‘That’s human nature. They like to be part of a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Leadership is not a one-man or one-woman show. It’s not about vanity, it’s not about having your own agenda and forcing it through. Yes, it’s about selling a vision that people can believe in, but it’s about bringing people with you, otherwise you can’t achieve it. There’s no point just standing on top of the hill and saying how great everything is. You’ve got to get everyone up it.’
Right now, the hill looks steep. Could Johnny Mercer be the man one day to lead us up it? ‘I’m not so sure about being prime minister, no,’ he says. Of course, he’s not.
Johnny Mercer is MP for Plymouth Moor View. His book We Were Warriors is available in paperback now