Frustrated by out-of-touch politicians and the poor treatment of veterans, former army commando Johnny Mercer decided the best course of action was to become an MP. He spoke to the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy about his new book, which charts his journey to Westminster.
The prospect of becoming a politician wasn’t particularly appealing for Johnny Mercer and it was a career move that “disappointed” his wife.
He says he belongs to a generation that has “very little faith” in the political class. Such was his disengagement that, until he became an MP two years ago, he’d never voted in an election.
Even now, when asked if he’s a politician, he balks at the idea and jokes: “That’s not really a term people are going to queue up to get is it? I would hate to say yes but I suppose I’m a Member of Parliament so yes, I guess in some ways I may be.”
Despite his reservations, the former army commando – who completed three tours of Afghanistan – felt he had a “calling” to bridge what he calls the “appalling” gap between what politicians say about military action and the realities of war.
A Conservative MP since 2015, Johnny Mercer told BBC Parliament’s Booktalk programme: “I got fed up of the difference between what people say in the House of Commons and these platitudes that come out on Remembrance Day and how that actually feels for people who’ve lost their sons and daughters in operations.
“That gap is appalling and in some ways it still remains. For a nation to treat its servicemen like that, in my view, is unacceptable and that is what’s fuelled this change to a career in politics, which is hugely challenging – and I don’t always enjoy it – but there’s work to be done and I’m determined to do it.”
His time in Afghanistan included seeing his friend Mark Chandler shot dead next to him. He is among the 456 British servicemen and women killed in that country.
Another friend later committed suicide, leaving a note saying: “Ever since I came back from hell I’ve turned into a horrible person and I don’t like who I am anymore.”
The UK began military operations in Afghanistan in 2001 – in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. From 2006, the UK was based in Helmand, one of the most dangerous regions in a volatile country. The UK’s involvement in the conflict ended in 2014 although around British 500 troops are still there, training the Afghan army.
Over the 13-year combat period three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – came and went.
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The MP recalled visits to Afghanistan by ministers who, he says, were given a “sanitised” version of the operation.
“I remember looking at them, the likes of David Cameron and William Hague, and thinking… you don’t really know what I’m going on about – but you make the executive decisions because you are elected.”
Mr Mercer was speaking to BBC Parliament about his book – “We Were Warriors: One Soldier’s Story Of Brutal Combat” – in which he gives a frank account of a challenging childhood, his military career and his decision to stand as Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View.
He said the decision to become an MP “was not particularly appealing… my wife was thoroughly disappointed, but I’m afraid when you’ve got a calling and you believe in something, you’re prepared to take the hits as you go.”
There was no road to Damascus moment. It was prompted by what he judged to be ignorance at Westminster, the failure to treat army personnel properly when they got home – and having a family.
“When you’re running into rooms not knowing what’s there, it’s inherently dangerous, and as you get older and you get married and you have children, you’re making that calculation all the time – is this sensible?
“You go through all these internal battles. Am I turning into a bit of a wimp? Those things came together and I thought I’m not prepared to accept the way we treat our servicemen in this country.”
He chose the Conservative Party because it was his “nearest home”. But that certainly doesn’t mean he agrees with everything the party does. He thought the Conservatives were on the “wrong side of the argument” in the past by opposing gay marriage and the minimum wage.
He has also polled his constituents on fox hunting in a form of direct democracy – he pledged to vote for whichever view had the majority.
What steered him towards the Conservative Party was its position on welfare reform because he believes it is not “right” for people to be better off on benefits than in work.
“I don’t blame people for having a life on benefits. That’s the system. But what you can do is change the system and that’s why I decided to join the Conservative Party.”
Johnny Mercer increased his majority in this year’s general election. Since then, he’s been trying to challenge the narrative he thinks has developed around veterans that they are in some way “broken” and “not much use for anything”.
“I think the vast majority of veterans contribute wonderfully to life after their service. We just need to give a little bit of help to some of them at the right time.
“With veterans’ care if you intervene early enough, upstream, before people get really poorly with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, before they hit substance abuse or homelessness… you can change the whole conversation around it.”
And he feels there is no time to lose. “If we don’t tackle this veterans’ care problem now, it’s just going to get worse. There are some brilliant organisations in this country who are doing some amazing things, if the government could take a lead and coordinate it.”
“The thing is, veterans’ care is not sexy. Looking after people isn’t sexy but I would argue it’s a fundamental part of conflict, of what we do in this country. The Americans are much more ahead of the game than us on this and I would like to see us catch them up – because the blokes deserve it.”
* You can watch Mark D’Arcy’s interview with Johnny Mercer on BBC iPlayer.