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Sacked defence minister Johnny Mercer blasts ‘distrustful, awful’ environment in Boris Johnson’s government

Andrew Woodcock
·4-min read
 (Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament (Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)))
(Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament (Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)))

Sacked defence minister Johnny Mercer has spoken out about a “distrustful, awful” environment in Boris Johnson’s government, which he accused of “a gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military”.

The former army captain was sacked on Tuesday after clashing with the prime minister over the treatment of veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

He wanted British soldiers deployed to the province to be included in the terms of the government’s Overseas Operations Bill to protect them from false or delayed prosecution for alleged offences while in service.

In an outspoken interview with Times Radio, Mr Mercer branded the political world a “cesspit” and said he felt he was “the last man in the room who’s willing to fulfil our manifesto commitments” to the military.

The former veterans minister said that he believed Mr Johnson himself was “deeply committed” to the agenda set out in the 2019 manifesto – which promised “legislation to tackle vexatious legal claims” – but added: “The truth is that nothing, nothing has been done.”

While accepting that coronavirus has dominated the PM’s agenda over the past year, Mr Mercer said: “He should expect his ministers, I think, to be as committed to the manifesto as he is.

“And if I’m made to feel like I’m the last man in the room who’s willing to fulfil our manifesto commitments, there’s something wrong. We reached that point, so I left.”

Mr Johnson today assured MPs that legislation to protect Northern Ireland veterans would be brought forward soon, with Downing Street promising details in the Queen’s speech on 11 May.

Mr Mercer’s departure from government was presented as a resignation, but the Plymouth Moor View MP last night confirmed he had been forced out, amid speculation that he had been planning to quit when the bill reached the Commons today.

He suggested that Mr Johnson had surrounded himself with “people who inevitably will tell you everything’s all right, and what you want to hear because they don’t they basically want you to think best of them”.

He accused former colleagues in government of not “shooting straight”.

And he said: “This is the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in, in government. Almost nobody tells the truth, is what I’ve worked out over the last 36 hours.

“I don’t think anyone really can get on their high horse about trust and ethics and all the rest of it in politics, because as far as I’m concerned most of it is a bit of a cesspit.

“I think we do have a clear commitment to follow through on our promises and do right by those who serve. And that is what drives me and what I do.”

Mr Mercer added: “Looking solemn at Armistice Day is not just good enough anymore. We have to deliver for these people.

“We have a huge challenge looking after the Afghan/Iraq cohort, we have the challenges in Northern Ireland, we have an elderly cohort as well. And we have to get this right. And I will do everything right to ensure that we can.”

Mr Mercer said that troops who had served in Northern Ireland were constantly being dragged back and asked to relive their experiences years after the event.

“People are drinking themselves to death, it is breaking up families, it is ruining our finest people,” he said.

“All they did was serve at the behest of this government, at the behest of the House of Commons, to uphold the rule of law and the peace in Northern Ireland.

“And yet now we’re happy to cut them off to people who want to rewrite history.

“That is all that’s going on, you know that nothing’s changed here. The politics, for me, it’s a gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military.

“And as everybody knows, I’m not having it.“

Mr Mercer’s replacement as defence minister, Leo Docherty, today secured Commons support for an amendment to the bill which will exempt genocide, torture and crimes against humanity from its provisions creating a presumption against prosecution more than five years after an alleged offence.

But there was concern that the protection against historical prosecutions was not explicitly ruled out for war crimes, as the House of Lords had demanded when it defeated the government on the issue.

Conservative former cabinet minister David Davis backed the bill, but warned he was ready to rebel against the government if peers insisted once more on the inclusion of war crimes in the list of exemptions.

But Mr Docherty said that nothing in the legislation will hinder war crimes prosecutions in this country, adding: “Removing any more categories from the bill would unnecessarily weaken the reassurance to service personnel and veterans, and we must remember it’s a high threshold, not a bar.”

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said Mr Mercer had been “a roadblock to reason during the passage of this bill through parliament, but no one can fault his passion or his sense of mission”.

MPs voted down a series of other Lords amendments, including a new duty of care on the Ministry of Defence to provide legal, pastoral and mental health support for troops involved in investigations or legal action.

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