Johnny Mercer: Boris Johnson's 'cowards' have 'betrayed' Northern Ireland veterans

Robert Mendick
·5 min read
Tory MP Johnny Mercer who was "forced" to resign as a defence minister, by number 10, over the treatment of veterans who served in Northern Ireland. - Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph
Tory MP Johnny Mercer who was "forced" to resign as a defence minister, by number 10, over the treatment of veterans who served in Northern Ireland. - Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph

Johnny Mercer, the sacked Defence Minister, has accused Boris Johnson of surrounding himself with “cowards” and “desperately weak” advisers who had “betrayed” veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict.

In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, Mr Mercer launched an excoriating attack on Mr Johnson’s administration, claiming his experience during two years as Veterans’ Minister had been “horrific”.

He said he had been treated “like s*** throughout”.

He also described the Government as “the most distrustful, awful environment” in which he had worked and added: “Almost nobody tells the truth.”

Mr Mercer, 39, a former captain in the Army, had told Downing Street out of courtesy of his intention to resign over his frustration at the Government’s failure to offer legal protection to ex-soldiers facing prosecution over killings during the Troubles.

But instead, he says Number 10 leaked his planned resignation, and then sacked him by text message.

He said the prosecution of veterans, many in their 70s and 80s over events as long as 50 years ago, was a “huge scandal” and an “appalling betrayal” for a Government that had failed to stop it.

On Monday two soldiers (identified only as A and C) will go on trial charged with the murder of Joe McCann, a former official IRA commander who died in Belfast in 1972.

Mr Mercer told The Telegraph that he repeatedly came up against obstacles to his attempts to offer protection to the troops who served in Northern Ireland.

A separate Bill, which does give protection from prosecution to servicemen and women in overseas conflicts, is being shepherded through parliament. However, Northern Ireland veterans are excluded from the Overseas Operations Bill.

Mr Mercer said: “This is not about justice. It is about a group of lawyers and average politicians sucking at a firehose of public money, trashing veterans in the process and dragging out the grief for the families.

“It’s the sort of thing the Boris Johnson I know stands up against. But leadership is all about who you surround yourself with. If you surround yourself with desperately weak people who will endlessly tell you what you want to hear, driven by Spads [special advisers] who have that classic combination of over-confidence blended perfectly with total ineptitude, you will get surprises.”

Tory MP Johnny Mercer who was "forced" to resign as a defence minister, by number 10, over the treatment of veterans who served in Northern Ireland. - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Tory MP Johnny Mercer who was "forced" to resign as a defence minister, by number 10, over the treatment of veterans who served in Northern Ireland. - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

He said the problem the Government had was it had promised “things to people who have already been discarded by a country they fought for”, adding: “It is almost worse than not saying anything in the first place and carrying on as if this problem did not exist.

“That has been the approach for years now: essentially, the political calculation is that veterans won’t say much, Northern Ireland is a tinderbox, and it’s not worth the grief. Well I have always made it clear that I will do whatever it takes to make people care about these people, care as much about them as we do about statues, Brexit, football and everything else.”

Mr Mercer, a popular MP who won his seat from Labour in 2015 and then grew his majority to almost 13,000 at the last election, said: “For me it’s a huge scandal, up there with contaminated blood and Windrush. Imagine if it was your Dad, your uncle, reliving all this stuff they have already been tried for, vulnerable already in their 70s and 80s. It is an appalling betrayal.”

He complained of the inertia to act and bring in legislation to protect troops. Mr Mercer, now sat on the backbenches and popular with hundreds of thousands of former soldiers, threatens to be a thorn in Mr Johnson’s side.

“The arguments against doing anything are nonsense made by people with deficient backbones who do not understand the intricacies of the problem,” he said.

Mr Mercer recognised the need for soldiers “who commit a crime in uniform to be held to account” and said that was irrespective of the time that had passed. But he believes troops who served in Northern Ireland had been investigated at the time, and were now being unfairly picked on.

He said his experiences as a minister had made him determined to resign. But even that was wrecked by Downing Street, when he went to inform them out of courtesy.

He said: “My experience in Government has been horrific, but I’m not going to tell tales out of school. I want to get this issue [of protecting veterans] over the line. It’s safe to say I felt like I was treated like s*** throughout, and the last act of leaking my resignation which I sent as a courtesy only to Number 10 so that I didn’t ambush them, was a huge mistake.

“Any goodwill was lost. And then when I refused to resign I challenged the Chief Whip to look me in the eye and sack me. He couldn’t do it, I left and he texted me. That summed it up. What cowards.”

He went on: “I was fired because I made it clear I was not prepared to parrot the lines from the Northern Ireland office any further.

“They’ve made me look ridiculous. We will walk through legislation in line with your bill; we will deliver within a hundred days; we will deliver by the summer. We will deliver by Christmas. It’s like a skit. They must think I’m stupid. Maybe I am. But the country is not, and at the maturity of the Overseas Operations Bill with nothing forthcoming, I had to go.”

Former Scots Guards captain Leo Docherty has been appointed as Mr Mercer's successor.

Alan Mak was made an unpaid Government whip, filling Mr Docherty's former role, making him the first British-Chinese person to serve in government.