Today
Thu 6 May 2021

Iain Overton dissects what the Veterans Minister’s farewell reveals about the man himself and a wider right-wing shift in British politics favouring the military

If the way in which a minister leaves a high office of state is a gauge upon their person, then the recent departure of Captain Johnny Mercer, Veterans Minister, says a great deal.

Some say he resigned, others that he was sacked. Whichever the case, it was a moment of high drama – with orchestrated leaks and claims that the Prime Minister fired him by text. One thing you can’t accuse Mercer of is shying away from attention.

Until yesterday, he was in charge of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs – part of the Cabinet Office – trying to get the controversial Overseas Operation Bill through Parliament. The bill, which returns to the Commons today, was designed to protect veterans from “unfounded prosecutions”. But, when it was decided that British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland were to be excluded from the bill, Mercer called it a “red line” and left.

Some might say that this was a rare moment of a politician putting principle before party. Certainly, it’s a gamble. Mercer, first elected in 2015, aged 33, was heralded as a ‘Model Tory’ – even a future party leader.

His road from intention – an ex-Army Officer who wanted “to provide veterans with better care” – to conclusion – front-page resignation – though, reveals not only concerns about the man himself, but also a right-wing shift in British politics favouring veterans and the military at large.


The Man

It is hard not to feel that Johnny Mercer was out of his depth when it came to his brief.

When asked by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights “what he meant by vexatious prosecutions brought by the [Ministry of Defence] against armed forces personnel”, its report cited that Mercer “seemed not to understand the question”.

Similar, in February, Mercer claimed in the Commons that the independent review of the military justice system did not recommend rape cases in the UK be taken out of court martial. This was despite the fact that it was the first recommendation.

He also managed to forget to declare that he earnt more than £11,500 through a second private-sector job, in his first 60 days as a minister. This, even though he had told the Plymouth Herald: “It is well known that those who are appointed to the Government have to give up employment interests.” He faced no censure for this, but was later found to have breached parliamentary rules for failing to declare that he co-owned a consultancy firm with his wife. He currently stands accused of breaching the rules a second time regarding allegations of parliamentary leaks.

Mercer even boasted that he had “secured the biggest majority” that any politician has ever achieved in Plymouth. His majority in the city of 60.7% was lower than Labour’s David Jamieson in 1997 (60.9%), with other MPs winning similar majorities in 1931 (72.2%), 1918 (62.2%) and 1854 (61.3%). He possibly meant in the new constituency of Plymouth Moor View, created in 2010.

But, with such a poor grasp of detail, it is perhaps unsurprising that the line-up of people criticising Mercer’s main focus – the Overseas Operations Bill – was long indeed.

Lord Charles Guthrie, former Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, and the British Legion all raised concerns. Elizabeth Susan Wilmshurst CMG, the deputy legal advisor at the Foreign Office on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, said that the bill increased the likelihood that the International Criminal Court would investigate and prosecute potential war crimes by UK forces. And Jeff Blackett, judge advocate general of the Armed Forces from 2004 to 2020, decried the bill as “ill-conceived”.

Even today, Helen Durham, director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, tweeted that she “encourages the UK Overseas Operations Bill to effectively uphold the obligation to prosecute and punish war crimes, as required by international humanitarian law”. It is extremely exceptional for the organisation to make any public comment on UK Government policy.

Such concerns, though, fell on Mercer’s deaf ears.

Indeed, when Rev Nicholas Mercer (no relation), the chief legal officer for the British Army during the 2003 Iraq War, tweeted that the bill would decriminalise torture (the one thing that the Government has been forced to climb-down on), the then minister bullishly replied: “Garbage… Don’t become clickbait.”

Such rudeness seems to come easily to the man. He called the right-wing polemicist James Delingpole a c**t for not wearing a face mask. He said that criticism of his salary “smacked of political jealousy”. And, despite the fact that he has blocked a number of veterans on Twitter, he said he courted outrage: “It’s why I do it.”

Such capacity for self-publicity is certainly impressive, and no doubt fuelled by his office having had two full-time press officers (costing £158,846 a year). 

Of course, there was his decision to retweet that “he’d never met a straight woman who didn’t fancy him”. Or the time he appeared half-naked in a Dove advert. Or when he posted an image of himself topless having a COVID-19 vaccination.

But what really dominates is his unrelenting ego.

The first time Johnny Mercer ever voted was for himself. And, when he did vote against Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, he claimed that week was “very, very difficult” for him – ignoring the children whose meals he had voted against.


The Wider Shift

These issues with the man are not the fundamental reason why it is good that Johnny Mercer has left office.

The main reason is that it might give us pause to consider what he represents. This is because he is not, in the end, a ‘model Tory’. Rather, he is a very specific type of Tory: one for whom emotion reigns over fact; for whom debate is one-sided; and for whom loyalty to a cause overrides evidence presented to the contrary.

In this way, Mercer represents a thick strand of MPs. After all, one in seven Conservative MPs either served or are reservists in the British Military. And 102 of the 129 (79%) tri-force barracks in England and Wales, sit in Conservative seats.

It speaks to a Conservative Party that has aligned itself fully with the military – and the military seems to have answered back. When a senior service general claimed that a mutiny was on the cards if Jeremy Corbyn ever became Prime Minister. And where soldiers were infamously filmed shooting images of the then Labour leader.

Mercer’s political profile reflects this wider shift in rhetoric. One in which “veterans” are pitted against human rights lawyers or ‘lawfare’ – as these two graphs showing the frequency of the words used in Parliament, as captured by Hansard, demonstrate:

In the end, Mercer was in danger of becoming an icon of British politics that went unchallenged, even by Labour – because to do so came with its own political risk. 

He – the fresh-faced, passionate veteran of the Afghanistan War – was not only high on his own self-belief, he was also upheld by a British press as a hero, stopping ‘vexatious lawyers’ from holding the military to account.

The trouble is that, apart from one person – Phil Shiner, there were no other vexatious lawyers. But, Mercer plugged that line because to do so obscured the reality that UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan did, indeed, occasionally kill civilians and violate human rights.

As the International Criminal Court’s report itself stated earlier this year, “there were incidents of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British armed forces service personnel” and “the actual scale of victimisation may be much larger” than proven.

In this way, Mercer, by first turning veterans and now himself into the victim in all of this, has actively reduced this Government’s claim to be an upholder of human rights, not raised it. His departure is only a good thing.

Iain Overton is executive director of Action on Armed Violence

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