Tory Baywatch

Into the freezing sea with Johnny Mercer

Johnny Mercer’s collision course with Tory high command can be charted back to a conversation with election guru Lynton Crosby in 2015. Mercer, never having voted in his life, was standing as the Conservative candidate in Plymouth Moor View, a constituency previously represented by socialist Michael Foot. “You ain’t gonna win, mate,” was the election trickster’s grim assessment.

Mercer did though and two years later he could have returned the same verdict to Crosby, who butchered the first Conservative majority for 23 years. Yet different forces were at work in Plymouth and Mercer’s majority increased by a factor of five to more than 5,000 votes. It affords him the security to call his own party’s government “a shitshow.” An assessment made in a previous interview for which he is probably best known. He now characterises it as “wildly optimistic.”

“I feel very passionately about the power of politics for good,” Mercer tells me. “So when I see what's going on at the moment I find it tough to get alongside.

"We are in a very dark place at the moment, people are being badly let down. For the vast majority of people, go and talk to anyone around here, they're absolutely fed up with Brexit."

We are sat in a Cornwall pub that gazes out over Crackington Haven beach or “Cracky,” as Mercer and the locals call it. After an hour paddling through freezing surf and bodyboarding back in, we retired there for beer with scampi and chips. My feet were so numb I didn’t realise the walk back to the Coombe Barton Inn was bruise-inducingly stone ridden.

“Johnny, why are we surfing in the middle of December?”

“Because it’s a million miles away from Westminster,” the reply comes back sharply. He makes little effort to hide disdain for his place of employment.

The 37-year-old thinks the country, petrified by its own circumstance, is crying out for leadership and that little can be found in the House of Commons.

“I think the inability to deliver on that referendum and to straighten this problem out has been the hallmark of a failure by the political class in this country.

"We are at a spasm of the end of an era of a career politician and, personally, I can't wait for that to be over.”

Given past form, it’s unsurprising Mercer doesn’t see solutions, or evolution, coming from the government. He derides a recent suggestion that the process of leaving the EU could be guided through parliament by a series of indicative votes. “The idea that Gavin Barwell is going to meet the biggest challenge of a generation is wildly optimistic.

“If I sat around with my guys in Afghan and asked for a vote, they’d be terrified for not having a leader.”

Mercer served as a captain in the British Army, leaving after 12 years and three combat tours of Afghanistan. The officer was attached to special forces and coordinated artillery and air strikes with 29 Commando.

The position required him to pass the All Arms Commando course, training that culminates in a gruelling series of physical challenges - including a 30 mile-run carrying tactical webbing and a rifle completed in less than eight hours. About half of participants drop out before the end.

Would the House of Commons benefit from having its own commando tests? The question elicits a shriek of laughter. “I’d love to take some colleagues around the Bottom Field [an assault course].”

Politics and Mercer’s military career are paving stones on the same path. He says British governments have been “appalling” in their treatment of veterans. It’s what inspired him to contest an ‘unwinnable’ seat in Plymouth and deliver a maiden speech that stunned the House of Commons into silence.

He spoke about Lance Sergeant Dan Collins of the Welsh Guards, an Afghanistan veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who took his own life, and Lance Bombardier Mark ‘Bing’ Chandler.

Mercer told the Commons: “There remains a great stain on this nation of ours when it comes to conflict.

“Dan worked hard to try and find treatment that worked.

“He fought his demons with the same spirit and courage that he demonstrated on a daily basis against the enemies of the state on foreign fields.

“When he returned, unlike in his battalion, we did not have his back.

“Dan recorded a video message for his mum on his mobile phone. He said: ‘Hey mum, just a video to say I’m sorry. Ever since I came back from hell I've turned into a horrible person. I love you, I’ll see you.’

“And with that our nation failed one of her bravest sons once more as yet another victim of the Afghanistan war lost his life.

“Not bleeding out in some dusty foreign field in the intense pressures of combat but in his homeland, which he fought so deeply to defend.”

“Bing was just a great guy,” Mercer says, explaining how he commanded a team of four responsible for guiding ordinance onto targets. One dropped out at the beginning of the tour, another struggled with life at home after and the other, Bing, was shot in the face. After escaping the firefight, Mercer cradled his friend’s lifeless body in his arms for the course of the 40-minute drive back to base.

Campaigning for the first time in 2015, Johnny Mercer set out to knock on every single door in his constituency, a necessary cliché after CCHQ stopped answering his calls. It worked. Constituents in Barne Barton greeted him, having “not seen a Tory on their doorstep for 30 years.” They and, other Plymouthians, elected Mercer their representative. In between harassing the Tory leadership, he lists a £30 million investment in the local hospital and homing of a new fleet of frigates at Devonport as recent achievements.

The former soldier takes as dim a view of his Westminster colleagues as most normal people but it is seasoned healthily with insider knowledge: “All the ongoing bitterness and fighting, it's just so boring. It's quite removed.

“Seeing colleagues go out onto College Green and talk to TV crews about, for example, colleagues forgetting to take their medication.

“Basically denigrating colleagues for suggesting that this prime minister might not be leading us in the right direction - having known that 24 hours previous to that they were canvassing friends of yours to support either their leadership bid or, actually, their boss' leadership bid.

“To watch that total failure of character is a little bit depressing, really."

At times, it actually sounds like Mercer doesn’t enjoy his job at all. “I don’t really understand those who want a career in politics, it’s pretty tough going.

“You’re always in the public eye, everyone comments about everything you do, everything you wear, everything you say and it’s beyond tedious.

“But actually you do it to get things sorted out for individual people who are often in our most deprived communities.

“There’s some amazing good to be done in politics.”

He’s insistent that making a difference to his local community justifies the unpleasantness.

At several points in the conversation Mercer looks over his shoulder and out through the fixed windows behind him, panning around to focus on the open sea. He seems reverent of the beach and ocean’s natural beauty.

I am not the first person to receive an invite to Tory Baywatch. Mercer details the efforts of another MP he had to save from the tumultuous waters. David Davis has also visited on surfing trips with his family. Johnny’s wife Felicity, who doubles as his aide, described the occasion as “lovely.” She brings us warm tea once we’re out of the Baltic water and holds a towel up in front of her husband while we change in the car park.

Not long after mentioning Davis, Mercer namedrops the former Brexit secretary's successor. He says he text Dominic Raab a headswap from the JOE Politics account.

Considering Mercer thinks Brexit is blocking other, more important, legislative projects it's an odd association with two of the louder Leave voices in May's cabinet.

***

"I ’ll give you one chance at honesty. Did you insinuate my wife was a prostitute on the Plymouth Herald comments section?" Johnny Mercer is wondering out loud why a tweet of his was so popular as he drives us back to Newquay airport.

“Is it the Partridge element?” It might just have been. Posting his question into Twitter’s vast and empty void provides humorous contrast to the presumably 10s of users in the comments of a local newspaper.

How he can’t see the comic angle gives off a feeling of faux naivety. Johnny Mercer is not ignorant.

When we spoke about veterans’ care he was empathetic. A recent Friday was spent remediating with a landlord who “in my view was doing nowhere near what they should be doing to look after some of our most vulnerable people.”

Throughout the conversation, Mercer touches into military language. “That’s why we fight the fight.” You deduce a sense of duty more than hangs over him, even if it is tinged by healthy rejection of authority.

In the car earlier that day, on the first leg of the journey, I asked Mercer for his pick to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative party. He paused and responded “Well, look at that,” - we had just driven over the crest of a hill and the restless waves of Crackington Haven were coming into view.