Johnny Mercer is a member of the Defence Select Committee and MP for Plymouth Moor View.
I’ve no idea what to do. I’m looking for hope – for inspiration from the generation of Cabinet ministers and seniors members of our Party who led us to this point.
I came into politics for fairly niche reasons. I fought for years in an unpopular war and, fed up of the politicians feigning interest, I decided to run for office. My city of Plymouth – I’m passionate about it. Whilst my wafer-thin experience in politics helps me to retain a degree of perspective in these tumultuous times, it has also caught me out. I regret not being clear enough in some areas: for example, I never said that I wouldn’t vote Conservative in that notorious interview in October; I simply stated that a young, busy family attempting to assert itself in a competitive and chaotic world would probably take one look at the current political offerings and simply not take the time out to go and vote, because those offerings are so poor. But of course that view can be twisted. And I should have known that.
None the less, this perspective has also led me to some pretty dark conclusions of late. I have been firm in my criticism of this administration – one of which almost everyone knows my description, and one by which I resolutely stand by (though will not repeat). There are many people in this country who want – indeed need – a competent compassionate modern Conservative Government: I must speak out for them. The fear that they may turn to a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn – particularly in Plymouth – is the single motivation for all of my interventions. Nothing more and nothing less.
But amidst all this, I have been looking for a vision – at no moment more so than now. There are plenty of colleagues who have come into Parliament to extract Britain from the European Union. They respect my endless diatribes about how this country treats its military, and in return I entirely respect them and their views on Europe. I remain ambivalent: the EU is an issue of course, but it is not the issue of our modern times. Many more people join the Conservative Party, as I did, for reasons other than Europe. I want to leave the EU – we must leave. But for what?
And I ask that not mockingly, but with a genuine desire to hear the answer. I, like many colleagues, react badly to the Party’s decision to try and strong-arm me into voting for this deal. The idea that a group of senior people in our Party who lost a 21 point lead in a self-indulgent general election – to Jeremy Corbyn – are advising me to now listen to my constituents, having singularly failed to do that themselves ever since David Cameron left office, is genuinely amusing. The arrogance of failing to answer the question – what is “Plan B”? – as part of a suite of unthinkable threats including a general election, no Brexit, or a no deal catastrophe, actually push me away from supporting this particular deal. The clear deception of red lines crossed without acknowledgement, and the idea of the UK being a junior partner in a relationship that we cannot unilaterally leave, leaves agnostics like me are looking for an alternative.
But I can’t hear it. How are my constituents – who voted almost 70 perc ent to leave the EU – how are their lives going to be better off in April compared to March, immediately after this momentous decision? How will being outside of the European Union help our core mission as modern Conservatives – to meet the challenges of a modern Britain that is changing so fast. Why or how is food going to be cheaper for some of my poorest families? How will being outside the ECJ help my small entrepreneurial businesses in Plymouth? How will our economy thrive to provide the jobs – the single biggest accelerant of life chances in our most deprived communities like mine. How will Brexit provide the engine that drives a health service so desperately in need of reform in places like Plymouth?
I could go on, but I won’t. At some point, someone, somewhere in a position of influence in this Party will wake up and realise that the politics of fear will only take us so far. It is easy to scare people into voting for you. It is harder to sell a vision, to advocate, to persuade – to lead people to a brighter future. But that is the key question this week. Can a case be made for a bright alternative, or are we going to accept this deal as ‘the best we can do’, ‘could always be worse’, answer that won’t encourage a single swing voter to vote for us at the next election? I wait with interest. More importantly, the country does.