Liz Truss laughed at Tory MP Johnny Mercer as she went back on the word she had given to him during the leadership election that veterans’ affairs would not be downgraded under her government, the former veterans’ minister has revealed.
The ex-Army captain turned politician told me the meeting cast him into an immediate depression, and that though he believes he has made progress for veterans, his “stiffing” by two successive Prime Ministers has made him doubt his own future in politics.
He also admitted that if a constituent asked him whether a Starmer Labour government or a Truss Tory government was better for the country, he would find it very hard to answer. He said the Tory Party under Truss was no longer a Conservative Party, but a libertarian party, and that by gifting Labour a huge poll lead overnight through the mini-Budget, she and the government whips had lost all authority.
I was interviewing him for my Talking Heads series for Men’s Health magazine. A veteran of three tours of Afghanistan, Mercer has talked in the past about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But he was keen to open up too about depression, not least because he had recently fallen into a bout of the dreaded “Black Dog” following that meeting with Truss.
The interview was set for the November edition, to coincide with Remembrance Sunday. But given the Truss Premiership is likely to be over by then, Men’s Health are running the interview online from this evening, and in the magazine later. You can read extracts below or, if you want to read the whole thing, you can view it here.
On his sacking as minister for veterans’ affairs
AC: The Truss meeting, when she went back on her word, that hit you hard.
JM: So I have always had obsessive compulsive disorder. Washing, checking, switches, I was probably the cleanest soldier in the whole of NATO. The thing with OCD is that when it is bad, it can lead to depression. As you know, depression is a very clearly defined condition and often it is not triggered by anything in particular, and I have in the main always controlled that. When this happened it was such a gut punch. I remember Liz kind of laughing while she did it.
AC: While she sacked you, while she went back on her word?
JM: Yeah. She was giggling and looking at the floor and I was just thinking “I am a mug for believing these guys,” and it sucked the air out of me. I was thinking “I’ve given seven years of my life to this, put my family through the mill for it, and you are laughing at me.” I tried to shake it off, went home, got pissed, all those things you shouldn’t do, but the thing about depression is it creeps over the back of your head, and then I am getting up every day and it’s hell, I don’t know how I am going to get through the day, get the kids ready for school, dress the baby, anything, I don’t know how I am going to do it. And the nausea that comes with it is suffocating. It’s like a cloud comes over and you can see the bits of sunlight reminding you how you normally feel but this bloody great cloud is there, everywhere.
AC: Do you regret going into politics?
JM: That is what pushed me over the edge when she sacked me, a sense of regret I had ever done it. But then on reflection you get perspective. I got stuff done that I set out to do. If someone is going to tell you a bare-faced lie there is nothing you can do about it. You can think to yourself “I would never do that.” You can say to her “if you carry on like that it will end in tears.” But ultimately there is nothing you can do about it.
On the background to the issue, and on the Tories no longer being a Tory Party, but a libertarian party, under Truss.
JM: When she was running to be leader, I didn’t back anyone, but I got all the candidates to commit to where we were – no reductions to the budget, keep the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, dedicated minister of state for veterans’ affairs in your first Cabinet. Then when I saw her after she became Prime Minister, she had decided to go back on that pledge. I genuinely never thought someone would undo it at a stroke.
AC: So how does that make you feel, politically?
JM: It sucks. I am a Conservative but the Conservatives have come on a long long journey since I joined under David Cameron and I think of all of the shit I swallowed to keep up with that journey, so I could deliver for veterans and I’m thinking “it’s fucking down the drain.” I think of the times I voted for something I didn’t really believe in because I thought it would mean I could get something done for veterans. Some of the budget and welfare changes, I voted for them and I wish I hadn’t because they made life harder for some of the people living here. I held my nose, kept going so we could do things like the Op Courage programme, bringing together all the mental health programmes under one roof in the NHS to make them easier to access… Politically I feel I got to the summit of Everest, everyone said I would never do it, I would never win here in Plymouth, never become an MP, then when I did, they said everyone will pat you on the back for being ex-military, but they won’t listen, they won’t do what you want. And they did. I did that, then it’s gone at a stroke and it does make you think “why did I bother with this thing?”
AC: So as Truss goes about doing other stuff presumably it makes you less inclined to swallow the shit?
JM: It is really important to be faithful to your soul. My Number 1 rule is always be faithful to myself. The truth is that the Conservative party is no longer a Conservative party. It is a libertarian party. That’s fine if you’re a libertarian but I am not. I’m a life chances Tory. I want to give opportunity to the kids here who haven’t had it.
AC: OK. So if they [constituents] were to say to you “Johnny, do you think we would be better off under Keir Starmer’s Labour, or Liz Truss’s Tories?” what would you say?
JM: (long pause)
AC: That is a long pause.
JM: I don’t know what to say. I am not a libertarian. The Tories can go in that direction, but I don’t have to.
AC: Can she get you back?
JM: Well, she has changed her views a lot over the years. There is an extraordinary arrogance here. You come in and within 28 days, you’ve gifted a 33-point lead to the Opposition. It’s hard to get people to do what you want them to with that on your record. Almost impossible.
AC: So how can you stomach it?
JM: This is the bit that affects your mental health.
AC: Not being true to yourself?
JM: Precisely. I never let politics get in the way of friendship, and Suella Braverman is a friend of mine. But for her to say her “dream” is to see on the front page of the Telegraph a plane load of desperate people being sent to Rwanda – I am on the polar opposite of that argument… Politics for me has never been a stage where I can preen around. It is getting shit done. If you can’t get shit done, move on. I could get paid more elsewhere, not be in the public eye, not be away from the family during the week. So it stresses you. Do I reassure the people here, as their elected representative, that this is not me, and upset my colleagues and the party? There is only so much you can put up with.
AC: But if someone like you is losing faith, what is it like for the people out there?
JM: It’s really hard, they’re really scared. My neighbour just re-mortgaged this week, now 200 pounds a month more. My mate who worked for 20 years then opened a coffee shop, he’s just lost it, because of energy prices.
AC: Can you see the Tories winning?
JM: (pause) We are really dangerously in the place where people are
not angry any more, they’ve just made up their minds. It’s like 1993-97 – whatever the Tories did, it wasn’t going to work. We’re in the same place now.
On the dehumanising nature of politics
AC: Rory Stewart is always saying on our podcast that he felt dehumanised by his time in politics.
JM: I identify with that. I knew next to nothing about politics until I became an MP, and you learn you have to swallow an awful lot of shit. I swallowed so much shit, voting for this policy, that policy, all to try to keep the veterans agenda going down the path. However determined and resilient you are, there is a residual build up that does stuff to your character. That’s why you do need people like me to go into politics from outside, get in, do stuff, get out.
AC: So why did you go into it?
JM: I went into politics for the very specific reason that I was appalled at the gap between the rhetoric of politicians paying respect on Remembrance Day and the reality for a guy with crap prosthetics, or not getting the mental health care he needs, or the parents who lost a child in these wars of choice. That gap became too big. Then in 2012 you had more serving people dying by ending their own lives than were killed in conflict. The Panorama programme which focused on that told the story of a guy called Dan Collins, a Lance Sergeant in the Welsh Guards who made a video for his mum just before he killed himself. He was crying, he said he was so sorry, he knew how much he was going to hurt his mum. He said he had tried everything and he couldn’t carry on. As soon as I saw that, I said “I am going to change this fucking country and the way we handle veterans.”
AC: Do you feel you’ve done it?
AC: But you’ve been stiffed twice.
JM: Yes I have been stiffed. But before, we were outliers, no Office for Veterans’ Affairs, no understanding that veterans are not serving personnel but civilians who need government support. We set up the first Office for Veterans’ Affairs, got the first veterans’ affairs minister, in the Cabinet, not bolted on.
JM: But we got there.
AC: Johnson only appointed you to the Cabinet right at the end, not when it mattered.
JM: True and I think he regrets it. America, Australia, New Zealand, they have what I am asking for. This is 2.2million people. We should not just remember them on Remembrance Day and forget them the rest of the time. We got there. And then a new Prime Minister comes in and completely goes back on her word and the commitments she made. That made for a very difficult time. It hit me really hard.
AC: So does that say you have failed?
JM: In a way yes because it means the change is not enduring.
I didn’t go into politics because I had a picture of Margaret Thatcher on my wall. I didn’t go into politics because I saw what you and Tony were doing and I thought “I want a bit of that.” I went into politics because of that lad who did that video for his mum before he killed himself. I went into politics for Mike and Ann Chandler who were the parents of my best mate Bing who got killed. When people in Parliament get pissed off with me I don’t care because I am not there for them. I became an MP because in this area, veterans, I thought we were shit. The fact they get pissed off – so what? If Mike and Ann Chandler were alive still and said “Johnny, are you sure about this?” that would have a profound effect.
AC: But not the whips?
JM: No. Any authority they had went with that 33-point lead for Labour.
On some of his fellow veteran MPs
AC: Is your best bet therefore not that someone replaces her who will deliver on the veterans’ agenda?
JM: The ones I think the least of in Parliament are the ones who are happy wearing their regimental ties but don’t lift a finger to improve the lives of those who served. When I was working with Dan Jarvis – Labour, great man – against the idea we should be making ten grand profit out of Fijian soldiers to settle here, when they had served this country – crassly immoral – veterans turned MPs like James Heappey and Leo Docherty actively campaigned against me and Dan trying to stop that from happening. I could never foresee how I could ever be that person.
At one point Mercer asked me: “What do you think I should do?” Here is our exchange:
JM: What do you think I should do?
AC: Off the record?
JM: On the record.
AC: Well, you came into politics not knowing whether you were Labour or Tory. You decided Tory was closer to what you think. You’ve achieved a fair bit of what you wanted to, but you’ve been stiffed badly by one Prime Minister and even worse by his successor, and I think you’re more likely to achieve what you want to by going the whole hog and saying to people “if I can get Labour to do this I will back them and get other people to back them too.” That is what I would do.
JM: You would do that if you were me?
AC: I would. You’re not a tribal Tory. I admit to a vested interest here as a Labour supporter. But I really do believe the best way to achieve what you want is to get Labour to commit to what you’re asking for.
JM: That would certainly make my life difficult if Labour committed to my defining reason for being in politics while the Tories remained where we are.
AC: It might make it easier.
++ NB media outlets …. Please credit Men’s Health Talking Heads series by Alastair Campbell if you use quotes. Thanks