Ex-minister Mercer attacks ‘lack of leadership’ over Troubles veterans
Former veterans minister Johnny Mercer has described how he was “chewed out” by senior colleagues when he tried to speak out on behalf of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.
Mr Mercer, who quit last month, blamed a lack of “leadership” within Government for its failure to deliver on a promise to protect veterans of the Troubles from future prosecutions.
His comments, in evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, came as Boris Johnson again promised to legislate – although there was no bill in the Queen’s Speech.
The pledge is very clear in black and white and we have not delivered that in black and white
Mr Mercer said the Prime Minister first made the commitment in an article for The Sun when he was campaigning to be Tory leader in 2019.
“The pledge is very clear in black and white and we have not delivered that in black and white,” Mr Mercer said.
“These things are all down to political will. There are options. They require a commitment, a degree of leadership, statesmanship, ability that has not been there to date.”
Mr Mercer said he had battled hard in Government for legislation but felt he was not receiving support.
If you are the most junior minister in Defence and it is seen as a bit of a tokenistic effort, then that job is going to be nigh on impossible
“I made a video once, when I was getting a lot of criticism from veterans, repeating word for word what the Prime Minister had said at the dispatch box about Northern Ireland veterans and what was in our manifesto – word for word,” he said.
“There was formal complaint about me that was put into No 10 and I received calls from secretaries of state chewing me out over it.
“It is about political priorities, it is about sticking to your promises. By the end, if I am honest, I felt I was the last man in the room who believed we should follow through on that so I left.”
Mr Mercer said that while he believed the Prime Minister was “deeply committed” to supporting veterans No 10 had sought to silence him when tried to speak out on the matter.
“It was extraordinary. A senior individual in No 10 phoned me up and said, ‘You are not to do the Today programme talking about veterans’ mental health’.
“I recall saying to him, ‘Has the Prime Minister specifically said that to you?’, because I didn’t believe he would say that. He was like, ‘The Prime Minster specifically told me you are not to do that tomorrow’.”
Mr Mercer said at one point he found all the staff in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs had been taken away – “I had no idea about it” – and that it took him two years to get a meeting with the Prime Minister.
“Getting this agenda anywhere was very difficult,” he said. “If you are the most junior minister in Defence and it is seen as a bit of a tokenistic effort, then that job is going to be nigh on impossible.”
He said no one in Government would take responsibility to cut the size of the Army to 72,000 – in breach of a Conservative general election manifesto pledge.
“If you’re going to make political decisions you have got to own them,” he said.
“I tried to find out from Treasury ministers and officials who arrived at this number, from people in the Army, ministers in my department, and literally no one could tell me a straightforward answer.”