By Mitch Gregory
At the end of last month I had the opportunity to interview the MP for Plymouth Moor View and newly-appointed minister, Johnny Mercer. I met Mr. Mercer – whom every other Plymouthian attending the surgery that morning dubbed ‘Johnny’ – after what looked to have been a busy morning. I was greeted in the reception by Johnny Mercer himself, shaking my hand and jovially leading me to his conference room. I could already tell that the usual Tory-stuffiness didn’t apply to this man and come the start of the interview the tables had already turned when Mercer asked me about my degree and about Generation Plymouth’s recent conception.
Getting onto the questions, I asked Mercer a few questions on the state of politics at the moment, and how he felt about it all.
“What is the Conservative Party doing to help young people, and, if you were on the campaign trail, as you may well be soon, how would you convince someone like me to vote Conservative?”
Mercer acknowledges that policies for young people “Have been done badly in the past – in a kind of patronising way” and that this problem still exists in both parties. Throughout his answer he keeps coming back to the idea that the best way to have won his vote before he became an MP was to enact policies that were “going to change my life”. Mercer admitted that he rarely voted before getting into his political career. At this point he refers to a Conservative policy wherein they attempted to win over young voters with Nando vouchers, denouncing such things as examples of this “patronising” approach to young people.
He accepts that housing is a massive issue for young people, anecdotally telling me that he was only able to buy his own home after he became an MP in 2015. He reaffirms his belief that tuition fees are right and that “people should pay for higher education”, although he adds that the way the interest is calculated on student debt is “incorrect” and that he would prefer a more means-tested system. These sorts of policies, Mercer argues, are the sorts of ones he would happily campaign on. He firmly believes that young people “are not stupid and they just want something to vote for.” An example of which is how Labour’s 2017 manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees has started an “awakening amongst students” who’ve “had a smell of the Jeremy Corbyn stuff and realised it’s a pack of lies, so they’re looking for something else.” He does also add that “they’re not naturally Conservative voters, I’d say, but they’re not stupid” reiterating the need to focus on policies to attract young people.
I followed up the question asking him for examples of policies that the Conservatives are implementing to help young people. Returning to housing he praises the Help To Buy scheme, but believes it could go further. And of course he adds that we need to build more homes and make planning permission easier. He wants a grown-up conversation about housing. A grown-up conversation would be quite the triumph in these times.
Much of politics and the Parliamentary arithmetic nowadays is about Party – we tend to vote Labour or Conservative, rather than for the specific candidate. So do you consider yourself foremost as a Conservative MP, or as the representative for Plymouth Moor View?
“I’m Plymouth’s member of Parliament, right? For me it’s very, very clear in terms of my priorities. And one of the things I was frustrated about when I came into this was how people seemed to say ‘I’m going to do everything for Plymouth’ and then get in and completely change their mind.” The example he uses for this broken trust is, of course, Brexit. He argues that Plymouth voted to Leave and that vote should be respected. He targets other politicians in Plymouth, saying that they will do whatever they can to frustrate the result. He admits he voted Remain, but says that should a second referendum come about, he’d probably vote to Leave. He thinks that if he were to campaign to Remain now he’d be breaking the trust the people of Plymouth Moor View put in him.
Further on what you were saying about being the representative for Plymouth, rather than just adhering to the Party whip, do you believe it was right to expel the group of 21 independent conservative MPs?
“It’s a really, really difficult issue. I don’t want to expel anybody – well, I say that…I do want to expel some people. You know, those who particularly have unpleasant characteristics in the Conservative Party.” He adds that every Party, being mass-membership organisations, need to abide by rules of decency. He returns to the question and reaffirms that he doesn’t want to see any colleagues expelled, however people like Mercer have been “crying out for leadership for the last three years. This country is in a very specific place, a very contested place, a very angry place, and Boris Johnson has a very clear method to lead us through this particularly turbulent time, and to be honest I support him one-hundred percent.” He says the sadness of seeing his colleagues leave the Party must be put after the state of the country.
Do you believe the prorogation of Parliament was the most sensible thing to do? In terms of supporting the country through this, as you say, contested time?
“I think it’s been quite significantly overblown”, he says confidently, “actually it’s four days extra that we would usually be in session because of the Party Conferences.” But he surprises me when he denounces “inflammatory politics” and adds that if it were him making the decision he’d have laid out his reasons for prorogation far clearer. He praises Johnson’s leadership once again.
Do you believe he [Johnson] will get a deal?
“Yes. I do believe he will get a deal.” No ambiguity there then. As soon as I begin to mention the possibility of an extension he shuts down the question and reaffirms that we will be leaving the European Union on October 31st. He says it’s a matter of trust with his constituents.
Moving onto other issues, there are climate strikes going on across the world at the moment. The Conservative Party policy is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, however UN projections have predicted that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees and a further billion people in vulnerable conditions as a result of climate change. Do you think the Government is doing enough?
“People like me already want to be in a world with net-zero carbon emissions […] we are acutely aware of the effects of climate change and we are living through them.” His tone at this point is very sincere, he’s a man of 38, born into a generation, like ours, who understand the dangers of climate change. Yet he plays it safe, saying that “When a country is trying to realign its economy, there are lots of factors at stake”. He acknowledges that the world as a whole have not taken climate change seriously enough for too long, but “Greenpeace have said that this is the greenest government they have ever seen in the UK.” He wants things to move faster, of course, and he supports the school-children strikes, however he denounces Extinction Rebellion for closing down roads in London and “breaking the law”. A balance is vital for all of these things, according to Johnny.
On the state of the natural world he says he spends “half my life in the sea!” and that fellow Plymouth MP, Luke Pollard’s, work on creating a protected marine reserve in Plymouth is good, adding that he “supports anything great about Plymouth.” He tempers his praise with advice that these things need to “mean something” for the people living in Ernesettle and areas outside of Plymouth Sound. He doesn’t have time for “press releases and bluster”.
I conclude the interview by asking Mercer about his new role as a minister, tasked with setting up a new Office for Veteran’s Affairs, which is his driving force as a former serviceman in the British Army. He hopes it will bring together all areas of government and the third sector to create “world class veterans care to those who served in this country and their families.” I thank him for his time and he responds, in his incredibly enthusiastic, casual manner, “Great! Cheers bud.”