Johnny Mercer wrestles in this interview with the difficulty of voting against the Chequers plan while remaining “a team player”. The MP for Plymouth Moor View describes the plan as it stands as “the worst of all worlds”, and explains that he has “a problem with Chequers because people in Plymouth have a problem with Chequers”.
He does not want Theresa May to lead the party into the next general election, but “doesn’t think that changing Prime Minister now is the right thing to do”.
Mercer is “profoundly disturbed by the complete breakdown of discipline in the parliamentary party”, and reckons an excess of “diktats from Number Ten” is part of the problem.
He defends Boris Johnson’s recent use of the term “suicide vest”, objects to the way “everyone’s queuing up to have a go at Boris”, and says it is “absolutely insane” of some MPs to threaten to leave the party if Johnson becomes leader.
Brexit, Mercer laments, has “paralysed” the Government in other areas, with only admirable but uncontentious measures such as “banning elephant tusks being cut off”, which do nothing whatever to benefit low-paid workers, being taken through Parliament.
In 2015 Mercer entered the Commons by winning Plymouth Moor View off Labour by 1026 votes, which at the 2017 election increased to 5019 votes.
At the end of his book We Were Warriors, which is mainly about his experiences serving in Afghanistan, he gives a laconic account of how he entered politics because he wanted “to change things for people who needed it”, and especially for veterans.
During the run-up to the 2015 election, he disobeyed orders from CCHQ to abandon his own seat and go to help in those which it thought offered better chances. He is told by Lynton Crosby, “You ain’t going to win, mate,” but nevertheless he wins.
ConHome: “Just generally on Brexit, you were a Remainer, weren’t you?”
Mercer: “I voted to remain, but I can completely understand why swathes of working-class communities in this country voted to leave the European Union. And I agree with them, I can entirely see why they did it.
“It wasn’t a defining issue for me, it’s very much that Brexit is a symptom, in my view, and if we fail to address those underlying causes, whatever we get from the Brexit result is not going to matter.
“For me this period since 23rd June 2016 has been pretty painful really. And it makes you question all sorts of things, whether you’ve made the correct career choices.”
ConHome: “Can you explain that a bit, the pain?”
Mercer: “Yes. People like me came into this not because we wanted to be a politician and hang around in London and give interviews and all the rest of it. We came into it because we believe in something and we want to change something and do something.
“But the reality of this Brexit thing is it has totally paralysed government business. I mean if you think about what we have actually legislated for over the last year, banning elephant tusks being cut off, whose going to oppose that?
“Upskirting. Well of course. Noble and worthy causes. But are they going to change the lives of my guys in Plymouth who work in the Dockyard every day on the minimum wage, who really struggle?
“Life for a lot of people in this country is bloody hard. I can’t over-exaggerate how different London is to the rest of the country. And if you fail to meet those issues, we’ll be in trouble.
“And I came into politics to meet those issues. So it’s been a very, very difficult time. I would never let those people down who voted for me, a lot of people who never voted before, and certainly a lot of people who never voted Tory before.”
ConHome: “So does that definitely mean you’ll stand in 2022, or is it far too early to say?”
Mercer: “It’s far too early to say. I’m sort of at a bit of a nexus at the moment, because I’m 37, I’m young enough to do other things. But the trouble is that when you believe in something like me, it’s kind of hard to let go of that. You’re almost prepared to take any hits whatsoever to achieve that.”
ConHome: “What’s your line on Chequers?”
Mercer: “I can’t vote for Chequers as it stands. I think it’s the worst of all worlds.”
ConHome: “Did you initially think Chequers was OK?”
Mercer: “No. I said it was a good start, it’s not a good enough end point.”
ConHome: “So what are the vital improvements?”
Mercer: “It’s totally in character with this current administration, i.e. it’s right in the middle, it doesn’t commit either way really, and you look at things like the alignment on goods, that’s insane, isn’t it. It’s absolutely insane. To hold the referendum, and not to deliver that, but crucially not to be seen to deliver that, would mean wilderness for the Conservatives for quite some time.
“I don’t have any red lines on Brexit per se, I think we have to deliver what people voted for and I don’t think Chequers is that. Ultimately I’m not going to get upset about that, though.
“What I will upset about is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn coming into Number Ten. That goes above being a Conservative MP, or being a politician. That’s about being a patriot. That guy will fundamentally change this country. But I’m a team player.”
ConHome: “So how do you oppose Chequers and remain a team player?”
Mercer: “Well it’s very difficult, isn’t it, because that’s the direction the Prime Minister’s chosen to go in. But the problem is that in seats like mine, while you do everything possible to remain loyal and operate as a team, you have this defining factor in everything you do, which is your electorate.
“Coming into this new, people think the divide in the House of Commons is between the old and the young, or the upper-class and the working-class Tories, and all this guff.
“And it’s absolute rubbish. The divide in the Commons is between those who have won, and maintain, a seat, and who have to go out on a Saturday, every Saturday, and advocate for the policy that they’ve just voted through, or the Government’s just come out with – the difference is between them, and those who are in a safe seat.
“And I’m afraid, you know, colleagues won’t like it, but in my humble opinion it is an entirely different job. I have a problem with Chequers because people in Plymouth have a problem with Chequers.”
ConHome: “What do they say to you in Plymouth?”
Mercer: “Well I always start the conversation by asking if they’ve actually read it, because there’s so much heat and light around it. And the majority haven’t, so I ask them to go and read it.
“But if somebody has read it, they will often come back to me and say, ‘How is this better than where we are at the moment?’ And it’s hard to explain that, because it’s classic government – we’re operating to a standard where we talk a really good game, so we can say we’ve done this and that, but how it actually feels to people in Plymouth who vote for it and pay our wages is completely different.
“And I can’t come to London and listen to all the talk and be like ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re right’, and then go and advocate it in Plymouth when they’re like, ‘We know it’s not right’. And so it becomes a bit of an integrity issue after a while.
“And I’m afraid pretty much the only thing you leave this place with each week is your integrity. I also recognise that you operate as a team. I’ve been profoundly disturbed by the complete breakdown of discipline in the parliamentary party.
“You achieve nothing on your own in politics. Nobody votes for split parties. And all this kind of bickering in public is really unseemly. I’m all up for really robust discussions in private.”
ConHome: “What did you think about the suicide vest line by Boris?”
Mercer: “Well it’s interesting because over the weekend there was that comment, and then there was the Chuka Umunna dogs comment. It’s pretty clear to your average person walking in the street that that is a metaphor.
“Boris Johnson’s not calling Theresa May a suicide bomber. Would I have said it? No. You know, politics can be incredibly lonely. It feels even more lonely when things like that happen.
“For example, I completely understand what my friend Tom Tugendhat said about it. I see his point of view, absolutely. But it’s a metaphor, it’s Boris’s view on where we are.
“Everyone’s queuing up to have a go at Boris. What they don’t like about Boris is that, you know, he wins elections. People like him on the street.
“Now is he the finished article? Of course not. Does he have the answers to what I would see as a modern, compassionate Conservative Party? Does he have all the answers? No. But you know, we’re a broad church.”
ConHome: “So these people who say they’d leave the party if Boris became leader?”
Mercer; “That’s insane, isn’t it. It’s absolutely insane. I think people do run away with a sense of self-importance in Parliament.
“I mean, if they leave, what’s really going to change? I could leave now. I’m genuinely ashamed of the way Conservatives treat defence at the moment. I could walk away. What would that achieve? You know, go home and feel all pious about my position. What a joke. Wouldn’t change a single life.”
ConHome: “On the leadership question, do you think Theresa May can lead the party into the next general election?”
Mercer: “No. But I also don’t think that changing Prime Minister now is the right thing to do. I think she’s got a tough job. We need to support her.
“But that is a two-way street and Number Ten need to do everything they can do to bring the party with them. This idea of diktats from Number Ten is I’m afraid poor politics. I’ve seen a lot of it in my short career.
“I’m always amazed that people don’t really seem to understand, particularly when they’re in government and in Number Ten, that you achieve nothing on your own. You have to bring people with you.
“You’ve got some amazingly gifted colleagues, far more gifted than I’ll ever be, but we just don’t work as a team – as something that is greater than the sum of its parts, which is ultimately why you get into this.”