We’ll do this, Johnny, you and I. We’ll change the country together,” was the Prime Minister’s regular refrain to Johnny Mercer. Last night, Mercer left the Government — sacked before he could resign as he had planned at the Despatch Box at 5pm today, after his Overseas Operations Bill finally passed Parliament. And Boris Johnson is looking for a new veterans minister.
Mercer was one of Johnson’s most fervent supporters for the Tory leadership just two years ago. How did it come to this? According to Mercer, who I have spoken to, it’s about broken promises.
Trouble has been brewing for some time. The former Royal Artillery officer and Afghanistan vet has struggled to deliver on his agenda. Veterans are a quietly loyal group, whose problems — from mental and physical health to housing and work — have been neglected by successive governments.
The Office of Veterans Affairs, which Mercer persuaded the PM to set up as a leadership campaign pledge, has had its budget cut, from an already minuscule £5 million to £4 million. Johnson’s promise to give the OVA the weight it needs to bang heads together in Whitehall has also fallen short. Most controversially, the Government has failed to deliver legislation to stop legacy prosecutions of Northern Ireland veterans without new evidence emerging.
“It was my face on the tin. My credibility with the blokes was plummeting. I couldn’t explain to them why we just weren’t doing what we said we’d do,” says Mercer. A month ago, he went to see the Prime Minister in his No 10 study and — during a very heated 45-minute conversation — explained he’d have to resign if things didn’t change.
They didn’t, so on Monday Mercer texted the PM to tell him he’d quit this week. He also informed his Cabinet Office superior Michael Gove, who told Mercer: “Give me a day”.
Word got out yesterday morning, and Mercer was summoned to see the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, last night.
Spencer told Mercer he had to resign there and then so as not to create any more fuss, and he’d “get a nice letter” from the PM if he did. Mercer told the Chief Whip to “f*** off”, and walked out.
Ten minutes later, the Chief Whip texted Mercer to inform him that he had been relieved of his duties. The PM wrote him a nice letter anyway. Prime ministers can’t always deliver everything they say they will. The tinderbox situation in Northern Ireland at the moment makes any promise on military prosecutions harder to deliver. But Northern Ireland is never far from tinderbox mode, begging the question why Johnson made the promise without a plan.
Sounds familiar? Many a Tory MP will tell you this is not the only occasion where a gulf has emerged between the PM’s tub-thumping words to them and his subsequent actions. Johnson won the Tory leadership on the promise to deliver Brexit by October 31, 2019, which didn’t happen. At his 2019 general election manifesto launch, Johnson insisted “we will not be cutting our armed services in any form”, but he slashed the Army by 10,000 troops last month.
To secure their votes, Johnson promised a raft of Tory MPs he wouldn’t cut foreign aid below 0.7 per cent of GDP. He did last year.
And he insisted to any MP who’d listen there would be “no barriers of any kind” in trade from Britain to Northern Ireland. The PM’s Northern Ireland Protocol established a morass of them.
It’s often said Boris Johnson doesn’t abide by the normal rules of politics. It’s the main reason, I’m told, that his two new communications directors persuaded him to scrap daily televised briefings, despite the £2.6 million studio. A rash of stories emerged that proved impossible to explain on camera.
As one veteran Westminster figure put it, “you can’t defend Boris Johnson in a conventional way. You can only defend him in a Boris Johnson way”.
His overpromising is to a certain extent priced in by voters and MPs. They have a boundless capacity to forgive him, supporters say, because his endless positivity convinces them he’s on their side. But is it boundless? Broken promises add up. Every one is a lost vote, another brick in the wall. Another Mercer outside the tent, angrily weeing into it.
One day, if he is not careful, Boris Johnson may discover he has let down so many people that there aren’t enough of them left to vote for him.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio