Tory MP Johnny Mercer: I'm speaking about my OCD to help boys like me
He's the Tory MP who did three tours of Afghanistan - and now he's on the run with Kay Burley on Channel 4. Brought up by Baptist parents who haven't spoken to him since the publication of his memoirs, Johnny Mercer tells Charlotte Edwardes about facing up to his childhood demons
Of all the former soldiers in the Conservative Party, who would Johnny Mercer MP choose to be on patrol with? Mercer was in 29 Commando ("two-nine"), did three tours in Afghanistan, including time with Special Forces, and I ask this question because there are a lot of ex-Army about (some, arguably, on "manoeuvres"). I begin listing them: Ruth Davidson, Tom Tugendhat... But Mercer interrupts. "Um, there's a difference between reservists and regular," he says. And those two are? "Reservists." What about Rory Stewart? "Gap year commission."
He reels off the regulars. "Leo Docherty, Bob Stewart, Tobias Ellwood, James Heappey."
Okay, so of them, who would he go on patrol with? He thinks about this for a second. Then smirks: "Nice try."
Even if he won't play the political patrol game, he has played the Channel 4 game Celebrity Hunted, for which he and Sky News presenter Kay Burley teamed up as fugitives to evade a crack team of Special Forces (Burley said one was "a sniper"; Mercer seems less impressed).
There are two more episodes so he doesn't divulge much, except to say that he and Burley were "immersed" in each other's lives and that they are "wildly different". Are they still friends? "Umm." Has he spoken to her since the show ended? "No." Did they fall out? "Umm." She called him "unfailingly calm". Did he like her? "She has a kind heart."
When he tells me they shared a double bed, I'm shocked. "Why?" he asks. Well, wasn't his wife Felicity jealous? "Haha!" He claps his hands. "She was probably pleased to be shot of me. I don't sleep well."
Today, Mercer is fresh from his latest political controversy - calling Theresa May an unimaginative "technocrat" and her Government "a s*** show" in an interview with The House magazine. He said that if he were a 35-year-old leaving the Army today, he would not be voting Conservative. "I just wouldn't vote."
He doesn't regret the comments, he says. "Someone asked if Theresa May could fight the next election; it's obvious that the answer is no. The currency in our trade is winning elections." Was he shocked by the backlash? "Exactly the right people were p****d off," he swaggers. Then, more sheepishly, he says that politics is something he is "learning every day".
Public support, though, was "massive": "I received thousands of messages, which was brilliant." What about Tories? "I'd say 80% were supportive, from cabinet ministers down. They said, 'You're going to take some bullets, but keep going'." He's heard not a peep from No 10 "or the whips". Did anyone give him flak? "One person had the courage to say something," he says. "But I think they were drunk." He describes an MP coming up to him and saying, "Oh Johnny, I'm so disappointed." It transpired "she hadn't read the piece".
Later, he Googled the MP's majority and found it was more than 20,000. There's a vast disparity between safe and "frontline" seats, he says. "I met someone the other day who'd never knocked on a constituent's door. I said: 'Bloody hell, your job is completely different from mine'."
Certainly, Mercer's mission to become an MP in 2015 was extraordinary. Before being selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Plymouth Moor View, a Labour seat, he'd never voted. His chances were 2%, and the party abandoned him, with Lynton Crosby dispatching him with a, "You ain't going to win, mate". So Mercer devised his own strategy: knock on all 35,050 doors in the constituency. He managed 26,000 before polling day. "I explained who I was. I listened to their stories." The gamble paid off: he won by 1,026 votes.
Given he was ignored by campaign headquarters in 2015, it's not without irony that while fighting the 2017 election, May went twice to Plymouth. Mercer was horrified, telling her desperate team he was "not available" for the second visit. He increased his majority by 400%.
So what's his magic? Well, he tries to be himself. His honesty is bracing (if at times naive). When I ask if he worries that scenes in his memoirs We Were Warriors - which include flicking through pornography, or petulance at his superiors, or drink binges (one of which ends with him trying to swim the Hudson, another with him nearly arrested in Phoenix) - might come back to haunt him he says: "Why? I was an idiot, but I was growing up. I'm human."
It's a far cry from, say, Gavin Williamson's major admission: "a shared kiss" in a fireplace showroom. (I mention Williamson because his is the job Mercer would like - "I want to be a 10-year defence secretary"). But then he actively goes against the image of a polished politician. This desire to smash the sham of authority has deeper roots. His Baptist parents used religious devotion to excuse terrible cruelty and psychological abuse towards their children. I sense the book skims the true extent. Older brothers were dispatched into the Navy at 16 and when one returned home for Christmas without money for "board" he was sent back into the cold. His parents have refused to speak to Mercer since the book's publication, but his decision to write about it has brought him closer to his siblings.
He was able to use his voice (he was runner-up in Choirboy of the Year) to win a scholarship to private school. But the demons of his childhood manifested in OCD, which often struck at night. He would wash his hands obsessively - sometimes using an entire bottle of liquid soap - and try to quell repetitive intrusive thoughts with prayer: "The same prayer, night after night. And if I didn't think of the same thing when I was saying the prayer, I thought someone would die."
Unsurprisingly, child mental health is a policy priority for him and he has no qualms about disclosing that he has taken the anti-depressant fluoxetine (Prozac) and undergone cognitive behavioural therapy.
"Speaking out still requires an element of courage," he says. "That's why I do it. When I was 12 or 13 I would have loved to have opened the paper and seen someone like me talking about mental health issues. That would have encouraged me, helped me."
I mention Davidson's assertion that her mental health issues as a teenager stood in the way of the top job at Number 10 and ask what he thinks. "I fundamentally disagree with that," he says, adding: "You don't choose to be PM; other people choose you. If there was a groundswell behind Ruth, knowing her as a person who serves and sees this as a duty and as a calling and something to believe in, I'd like to think there would be a different outcome."
He often references his service and military jargon seeps in everywhere: "end stay" and "taking a bullet". And he says things like, "I will fight 'til my dying day" and "If I die doing it, at least I tried". Certainly, his political career has been littered with incendiaries. Aside from an amusing anecdote about meeting Tony Blair at Sandhurst - Blair asked why he'd joined up and he replied, "For the boys"; cue much sniggering from the ranks - those politicians he'd met were distant and disengaged.
In Afghanistan he had gaffer-taped armour to Land Rovers and begged Estonians for ammo that did not fit their guns. "I couldn't stand the way the forces were treated by the political establishment," he says. "Whether that was in funding or, more acutely, in veterans' care."
He recalls "loading" injured colleagues on to helicopters to fly home, knowing that their only hope was charities such as Help for Heroes. "The reality of it was that the government didn't give a s***. I became an MP because I didn't like politicians."
Among those colleagues and close friends he lost was Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler, whose lifeless body he cradled for the 40-minute drive back to base.
He recalls putting his finger into the exit wound when a bullet ripped through his friend's cheek, through his spine, through his cerebellar cortex.
Treatment of veterans is the issue "seared into my soul", he says, and, unsurprisingly, white poppies make him cross. "They say they are campaigning for peace but that suggests 'soldiers love going to war', which is absolute b*****ks. We all want peace. The poppy is there to raise money for veterans' causes. It's disrespectful to use it. Choose any other symbol you want and paint it white."
So why join the Tories? He thought about both parties, but ultimately felt more closely aligned to the Conservatives, not least on the subject of welfare, which, he feels, "saps young people of their ambition to go out and get a job, build a family, build a life. You can't blame people for staying on welfare, because I'd do the same if I could make more money to give to my kids like that. But you can change the system so that people would always be better off in work."
Felicity, with whom he was at primary school in Sussex and met again during a messy time in his life between tours, is now his political agent. They have two daughters, Amalie and Joey, and live in a cottage in Cornwall.
I meet her for long enough to see that she is a major asset - chatty, funny, smart.
"The problem with Felicity," he admits, "is that she is much better than me. I try to keep her under wraps, but I am ever fearful that my Association will wake up and select her instead." Actually he's funny too, saying that Felicity was "unashamedly happy" when he broke the news that he'd quit the Army "right up until I told her I was leaving to go into politics".
He also laughs off his Dove soap advert, which he did to raise money for leaflets. "Oh dear," he says when I broach it. "I just stood in a shower for four hours getting lathered up over and over again. Terrific if one has OCD, as you can imagine."
Back to politics. The Army wasn't bad preparation: "There are conflating pressures" in both. "Fixing on the outcome, the goals, the vision, requires moral courage." Teamwork is also crucial. Does May have a good team? "I don't feel sorry for the PM, it's not a conscription job, it's a gift and a privilege. Part of that is choosing your team well. The biggest problem with this administration is, the staff around the PM are not good enough."
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