The usual suspect

Johnny Mercer is on the trail of who is preventing Northern Ireland veterans from legal protection

“He’s an incredibly busy man.” Johnny Mercer, late of the Ministry of Defence, was explaining the difficulties facing Boris Johnson, still somehow of 10 Downing Street.

Mercer was up in front of Parliament’s Defence Committee, discussing his departure as Veterans’ Minister. The short version is that Johnson had repeatedly promised legislation to protect long-retired soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution, and Mercer left in fury when that legislation failed to materialise.

The mystery that the committee, and Mercer, were wrestling with was why Boris Johnson’s government hadn’t done the thing Boris Johnson had promised. Mercer was, one felt, on the brink of epiphany, groping his way towards a startling realisation, like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, that would explain everything. The coffee cup was halfway to his lips as he went over the evidence.

“I believe that he as an individual is very committed to this agenda,” Mercer said of the prime minister. And yet, somehow, whenever he had tried to deliver on this agenda, he had been thwarted, sometimes by people who claimed to be acting on Johnson’s instructions.

“Can I just join a few of those dots there?” asked Stuart Anderson, a fellow Tory. Maybe, he suggested, the problem was somewhere in the government machinery. How effective had the government been on looking after military veterans?
“Pretty poor all round, to be honest,” said Mercer. He had struggled to get access to Johnson, the issue hadn’t been taken seriously across government, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs didn’t in fact have an office or, at times, any staff. “It took me two years to get a meeting with the prime minister.”

Was it there, floating in the mist just beyond vision, the shape of an answer to the question of why no one in government had taken the issue seriously? If so, it was gone before Mercer and his fellow Tories could make it out.
“I just don’t understand why you had this huge difficulty,” observed Richard Drax.

Mercer tried to describe the problems. At one stage, he said, a Special Adviser had instructed him not to give an interview about veterans’ mental health, saying Johnson had forbidden it, but when Mercer had checked with Johnson, the prime minister denied doing any such thing.

Again, was there, in that answer, a hint as to the nature of the problem? Mercer seemed to feel that a lot of the problem was with Special Advisers working for the prime minister. “They’d say ‘Number 10 says No’. And I would say ‘Who in Number 10?’ And they’d say ‘Number 10’. And I’d be ‘What, the door? The door says no?’”

‘Who in Number 10?’ And they’d say ‘Number 10’. And I’d be ‘What, the door? The door says no?’”

It wasn’t just Johnson who was the subject of Mercer’s enduring faith. Business was there too. The Special Adviser culture wouldn’t work in business, he said. “Any private company would fall over, because you’ve got unqualified people giving pretty important advice.” He went on, describing trying to find out who was behind the decision to reduce the size of the Army. “Everyone blamed each other,” he said. “Private enterprises can’t operate like that.”

Now, the Sketch will freely concede that its knowledge of how to strip an SA80 is nothing next to Mercer’s, but if we’re talking about buck-passing in the private sector, we’re in the Sketch’s house. And frankly, unqualified people evading responsibility for difficult decisions is exactly how private enterprises often work.

Mark Francois floated a theory that might, just might, explain why Johnson’s promise hadn’t been kept. “Do you believe that the prime minister is still committed?” he asked.

Mercer though was in no doubt. “He’s committed to it,” he said. “The pledge is in black and white.” He went on. “I’ve heard commentary saying I was naïve to believe the prime minister.” Perish the thought! That definitely can’t be it.
The problem with Northern Ireland veterans, Mercer concluded, was “a difficult area that requires leadership. It requires an ability and statesmanship and leadership that I’ve not seen to date.”

Had he got there? Had the riddle finally been solved? Over in the Commons, Johnson was at that point thanking all the voters who, like Mercer, had put their trust in him to fix the difficult problems that have stumped previous governments. Those problems, too, will demand ability and statesmanship and leadership and commitment. The greatest trick Boris Johnson ever pulled was convincing the world he was committed to things.

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