What does a “compassionate Conservative” look like these days? You may see this label as an oxymoron, or simply a long-lost Tory experiment, but there are many MPs in Parliament who are currently describing themselves as such.
Johnny Mercer is one of them. He’s only been an MP for a little over the year, and already he’s challenged his own party whenever he’s seen it drift to the right.
In the Commons, he entreated George Osborne to do “something – anything – that might mitigate the harshest effects” of the proposed cuts to tax credits. Following the Budget, he also voiced his concern about changes to the PIP disability benefit, warning, “we must look after our most vulnerable at every turn”.
Last summer, he spoke out against the government’s “slow start” to responding to the refugee crisis. Writing in the New Statesman, he warned the prime minister not to forget refugees in Europe when tackling the migration crisis: “We should not fall into the trap of responding to questions about the situation in Europe with answers about our role in the Middle East.”
And in the Spectator, he has deplored the “fanatical” focus on Europe and urged his leadership to “refocus swiftly” on being a One Nation party following the referendum.
When I meet him in his pokey garret at the top of Portcullis House a few weeks before the EU referendum, he appears concerned about the direction of his party.
“I have a very definite view of Conservatism,” he says, sitting opposite me on his office sofa. “I don’t recognise anything other than compassionate Conservatism. The other stuff, I just don’t really recognise, and I don’t understand it. And that’s why I speak out.”
The MP for Plymouth Moore View, and former Army officer, Mercer had never voted before the 2015 general election. “100 per cent record,” he chuckles.
After multiple tours of Afghanistan, Mercer began to scout around for something he could do to help improve care for veterans. He kept asking himself: “Why have more people killed themselves than have been killed in action?” After his last combat tour in 2010, he decided that he could only address this question with political power. Indeed, his main cause since being elected has been veterans’ care and mental health provision.
Mercer wears a string bracelet and has a faint scar across his forehead, but it’s his forthright criticism of his party, and politics in general, which most hint at his non-political background.
He ran and won in a Labour-voting area once represented by Michael Foot (Plymouth Moor View is mainly made up of the former Plymouth Devonport constituency, which the lefty Labour leader held in 1945-55). The new MP believes he owes it to his Plymouth constituents to look out for them, and their life chances.
“It’s very clear to me what this vision of the modern Conservative party looks like, and when things happen that are out of sync with that, I feel I have a duty to say something. Because I’m not here to be part of the Conservative party from the 1990s I’m afraid,” he sighs.
“I’m one who joined under David Cameron; I probably wouldn’t have joined before he became prime minister. I think he’s promoting a very exciting agenda around life chances, opportunities – those are the things that really matter to me . . . I don’t want people to take my party off to the right. That would be a disaster for me.”
All photos: Johnny Mercer’s office
Mercer is not alone as a neo-Cameroon. Plenty of the 2015 intake of Tory MPs reject the party’s old battles and feel an affinity with the modernising, “detoxifying” agenda first espoused by Cameron. Those in marginal seats particularly feel they owe their electoral success to Cameron. The current “blue-on-blue” wrangling over the EU has only exacerbated this streak in the newbies. Mercer, for example, would not campaign for either side, insisting that voters should know the facts over his opinion (he has recently come out for Remain).
Mercer and others like him could come to define the character of the parliamentary Conservative party. A senior Tory MP, who has been in parliament for nearly a decade, tells me that the new “compassionate Conservatives” in his party could even decide the next leadership election. “The 2015 intake, with one or two exceptions, and a sizeable part of the 2010ers, I think are starting to move into a position where they’re saying – particularly in two or three years’ time – ‘none of the above’. They want a change candidate. I’ve heard them talking, and you know, it’s not a death knell, but that’s what they’re beginning to think.”
Mercer admits he was “naïve politically” when he arrived in the Commons, and he’s found the public eye a challenge. Journalists have been especially excited about him appearing half-naked in an advert for Dove shower gel when raising money for his campaign, and his residence in London being a small boat docked in east London to avoid “obscene” house prices.
Nevertheless, he’s achieved quite a bit since being here. After going for dinner with the Chancellor the night before the tax credits debate to explain his concerns with a few other dissenting Tories, the government U-turned. By sheer tenacity, and generally being a nuisance, Mercer has managed to meet and get a plan into action on veterans’ care with David Cameron, and improving public health in Plymouth with health minister Jane Ellison.
“I went and spoke to her, spoke to her in the Commons, spoke to her in the tearoom,” he grins. “Then we exchanged letters, then I set up a meeting, brought my public health guy up all the way from Plymouth, had a great meeting, went on from there. That’s politics. It’s not about the whole sort of ‘me’ culture that I think can infect this place sometimes.”
He can barely disguise his frustration about how defence policy is made, however. He laments the need to vote on military intervention. “We need to really run away from this thing of getting Parliament to vote on foreign policy. As soon as the prime minister saw Jeremy Corbyn got voted in Leader of the Opposition, I think he should have said, ‘I am not going down this route any more’ . . . It’s ridiculous, it’s not fit for purpose. The prime minister is elected into office. He has the executive authority.”
Mercer reveals that the gravest disregard for politicians he witnessed among his fellow soldiers was during the 2012 vote on military intervention in Syria. “The prime minister lost that, and the opposition cheered. I think that was one of the lowest moments I’ve seen in Parliament. And as the military, it made you begin to think…all sorts of things.”
Does he feel that Labour is anti-British? “I don’t think the Labour party is,” Mercer replies after a pause. “I think Corbyn is.” But when considering the Labour MP tipped for future leader, and fellow former serviceman, Dan Jarvis, he shakes his head. “Dan’s a good guy. I fundamentally don’t understand how you can leave the Armed Forces and join the Labour party. Sorry.”
Mercer may have left the battlefield for the war of words in the Commons chamber, but it’s clear he will remain equally combative.