Johnny Mercer is a member of the Defence Select Committee and MP for Plymouth Moor View.
It’s Thursday night and I’ve just put the girls to bed. We’re living rough for a few days: it’s half term so I can’t let them enjoy it too much. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m putting them through an EU referendum debate on Sky. The Prime Minister is on; my seven-year-old remembers him.
We were in a cow shed in Cornwall. It’s the closest I got to a Conservative Party visit during the general election campaign. They’d made it clear they were not going to spend even so much as a single postage stamp in Plymouth for me. David Cameron was within 50 miles, and I wanted a picture with him.
I rated him. I had met him previously in my role as part of a team that was conducting the UK’s tier one man-hunting operations in Afghanistan. He spent more time with the operators rather than the officers waffling on. He got it: he got the personal sacrifice; he got the fight. He was in stark contrast to the previous visitor, who had asked us to end our presentation early, because he didn’t want to see the footage of guys on target. Political visitors were not something we relished. But the blokes liked ‘Dave’.
Those same blokes I see now, along with all the others. Placing more emphasis on my previous friendships, and on knocking on doors in Plymouth, is what helps me tp keep my head in the sometimes infuriating and currently very toxic and unpleasant atmosphere of SW1. One was round my house last Sunday for lunch with his wife. We talked about his work. Then he asked about mine. “What the hell is going on in Westminster? It’s embarrassing.”
He was right. It is embarrassing. Embarrassing for us as a Government; as a Party; as a country on the world stage. Embarrassing personally as well, having left behind a job I adored; though by no means perfect – steeped in loyalty, service, sacrifice; integrity, humility.
This debate has demeaned all of us and I am sorry to see it.
Perhaps it’s “the success” of the last general election. Despite record low unemployment – the single biggest factor in affecting life chances and deprivation; despite an opposition of poor quality; despite turning around the worst recession for a generation; despite some genuinely brilliant candidates; we achieved a slim and (as it is now turning out) almost unworkable majority in the Commons. We warned then of Ed Miliband being propped up by the SNP.
I couldn’t do it in Plymouth. I made a point of almost never mentioning the opposition. I had a vision, and I was going to bloody well sell it. This would be a referendum in whether or not I could do it. I was – bold idea as it was – almost trying to inspire people to come out and vote. I had to. I had no other option if I was going to win my seat.
I used the Conservative message. I believed in it. The single biggest factor, the single biggest driver in improving your life chances, in battling extreme deprivation; in improving the lives of our most vulnerable, is having a job. In Plymouth under the Coalition, it was down 48 per cent. Stunning.
But we are there again. Scare-based politics. “Because it works, Johnny: it’s not pretty, but it will get us over the line.”
No, thanks. I don’t want to just ‘get over the line’. I’m in this because I believe in it. I believe in the Conservative vision for Plymouth, for the country. I believe in transforming the lives of some of the most deprived wards in the city. I’m in it because most people end up in bad positions because of circumstances outside their control – perhaps a bit of bad luck, a couple of bad decisions, and itt could be any one of us. I’m in it because I believe we do ‘bombs and bullets’ reasonably well in this country but, when it comes to using that force, when it comes to looking after people and cashing the cheque for which these guys have sacrificed so much, most people just don’t ‘get it’.
And if people don’t vote for that I’m disappointed, but that’s democracy and I’m big enough and ugly enough to take the result. But I’m not going to start telling them that the other options available are frauds. It demeans me; it dis-respects them, and it treats people like they are stupid.
Here’s the truth: The world ain’t gonna end, no matter which way the EU vote goes. It will still rain most of the summer, England will go out of the Euros at the first opportunity…and I will still be droning on about veteran’s care from the back benches.
Should we leave the EU? It’s not perfect – picking holes in it is like shooting fish in a barrel. But do we seriously think that the most vulnerable in our communities; those whose lifelines are their jobs; those who regularly use the NHS; those who rely on funding for our public services – do we really think these people could tolerate the financial shock of leaving the EU? Of course not. Do we really think in a world that is only getting more dangerous and more complex, we are better off alone, or as part of a team heading in generally the same direction? Obama, Cameron, Osborne, Petraeus, Carney, Merkel, Clinton, Rajoy, Hollande, Trudeau, Lagarde, Branson. Do we really ignore all these opinions?
There’s something deeply pathetic about Nigel Farage appearing on a beach the morning after some poor migrants have been rescued, and then running through a market in Kent shouting ‘let’s take back control!’ From whom, Nigel? What am I missing?
I get the sovereignty stuff. I get the fact that we get over-ruled from Brussels every now and then, and I don’t like it. But we are in control. We are a controlling member in a team. We have specific exemptions around things we don’t like – the Euro; ever-closer union, protection of the pound. Britain has a veto on new member states joining the EU, as does every other current member state. Talk of a European army? Britain again has a veto. Yes: there is a real challenge around migration in the modern, more connected world we live in. A huge challenge. We should not have promised anything on it. But a reason to leave the EU? Give me a break.
The debate I’m watching with the kids, Faisal Islam tries to pigeon hole Cameron’s legacy as Prime Minister. “You’re just going to be the guy that got in on fear campaigns”. It stung. And it stung me too. Because partly it’s true, and partly because it obscures the significant and life changing successes of his premiership.
The British people – what this is actually all about – are not getting the truth. This isn’t a leadership debate. It’s not a personality contest. This isn’t a fear campaign. This is simply an opportunity to either re-affirm our current position and trajectory or move into the unknown. If you want to move into the unknown, go for it. It is your right and I respect that. But I’m not coming.
And please don’t give me this rubbish about being a true patriot and ‘believing in Britain’, just because you want to leave the EU. Am I not because I don’t? I’m proud of our country. We have huge challenges, but the truth is stronger than the rhetoric. More people lifted out of poverty; social mobility increased; more funding for public services; greater life expectancy and public health; better security services; better at looking after people; better at anti-discrimination; fairer society. Fast enough? No. Agree with everything? No. Want to chuck it all away on an unsubstantiated and unproven course of action? No, thanks.
Finally, on the leadership. A journalist phoned me recently and asked me after the last budget whether or not I still had any faith in George Osborne as Chancellor. I asked him if this was the same Chancellor who in his role had lifted millions from poverty; had created millions of jobs; had withstood personal vilification to bring the country out of the deepest recession for a hundred years; who had directed millions of pounds of LIBOR funds at military causes; who had finally committed to parity of esteem on mental and physical health in his budget; who had pumped millions into fixing the railway track that connects my city to London whilst asking for a plan that he could fund for future resilience; who had personally committed to sorting out Plymouth’s airport; who stands ready to listen to the concerns of a first-term backbencher worried about the impact of a policy on his constituents.
He asked me to stop. I asked him to stop taking the mick.