POLITICS
01/09/2015 11:27 BST | Updated 18/03/2016 10:59 GMT

Johnny Mercer: We need to 'grow up' over Iraq, my 'gippingly' embarrassing Dove advert and why Tony Blair is my political hero

Johnny Mercer

The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. This week it's the Tory Action Man Johnny Mercer...

15 from 15

Johnny Mercer's first few months as an MP saw him embrace both the sublime and the ridiculous.

The former British Army solider, who served tours in Afghanistan, delivered the most memorable maiden speech of all the new MPs as he pleaded for greater help for soldiers returning to civilian life after combat.

Delivered without any unnecessary flair or showmanship, the Tory MP for Plymouth Moor View brought the normally rowdy Commons to silence as he talked of "a great stain on this nation of ours".

"In 2012, we reached a very unwelcome threshold when, tragically, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than were killed on operational service in defence of the realm," he added.

Johnny was rightly praised for the speech, with even the most cynical of political watchers recognised its brilliance.

If that was the sublime, the ridiculous came shortly after.

An advert he had filmed for Dove soap was unearthed on the internet, and the ex-Army hard man was shown demonstrating how to get your skin nice and soft as he lathered up in the shower.

His tough man image was dealt a further blow when his wife, Felicity, revealed he had to shave his chest for the shower scene.

Here is Johnny Mercer's 15 from '15

1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Dartford in Kent and I then grow up in a combination of Purley in South London and Crowbrough, in Sussex. I’ve got seven brothers and sisters so quite a big family. I’m number six, so I’ve got two younger sisters, one older sister and four older brothers. Three of them went to the navy and I decided to join the army – I wanted to do it properly. I’m 33 now - and if you could put that in that would be brilliant because the newspapers keep saying I’m 38, which is starting to get me down.

2) What did you want to be when you were a child?

I wanted to be a soldier. I aspired to the qualities of soldiering. You grow up listening to your history lessons and I thought that’s actually something I would quite like to do with my life and lead blokes in combat. I enjoyed the idea of soldiering: living outside, going on operations, living out of a bag - it was what I wanted to do. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but for me that’s what I wanted to do.

3) When did you first become interested in politics?

I always had an interest it, but I never voted before. I became a member of the party just to be an MP, I’m no sort of political hack - 2015 was the first time I voted. The idea of joining the Conservative Party of the Labour Party or any party like that was pretty awkward but there’s things I want to do and I do want to use Parliament as a platform for change.

There was a couple of key, defining strands. The major one was on operations with the military and seeing some of my blokes really struggling with what we were asking them to do in terms of when they came home. I thought that we’re missing a trick here, we owe these guys something and it’s not happening.

I do feel we’ve got a slightly disaffected generation around about my age group at the moment who for one reason or another the whole sort of welfare thing has been fairly toxic. It’s got nothing to do with the money, the money will come and go, but the fact we were saying to people in Plymouth at one point: ‘Look the average wage here is £19,000 a year but if you play your card rights you can get £27,000 after tax’, I think it’s taking the hopes and dreams of a lot of people and that was a driving factor as well.

I think my city of Plymouth has had a rough deal from Government for quite a while. I thought ‘How am I going to affect these things?’ and I looked at joining the probation service, I looked at being a youth worker, and I thought ‘How can I make the biggest change?’ and I thought as an MP you don’t have a lot of power but you have a lot of influence and you get people talking about these issues. I thought: ‘Fuck it. I’ll try and be an MP. How am I going to do this? Well I’ve got to join a party.' I think they’re all slightly mad but I am personally a Conservative so I decided to join the Conservative Party. Does that mean I agree with everything the Conservative Party does? No, absolutely not, but I am personally a Conservative and I’m very proud of that. I think they have a fantastic record. When you come into politics from the outside people talk to you about the ‘nasty party’ and all the rest of it, but for me I haven’t really found that.

One thing I’ve found, this constant hammering of MPs by the media is not even close to being true. Yes, you have your bad eggs, as you have in every organisation, but I haven’t met a single MP, from any party up here, who doesn’t pride themselves on how well they look after their constituency. This idea people just come up here and ride the gravy train, again, I’ve found to be false.

This place is just a vehicle. If you start taking it too seriously you’ll end up going mad.

4) Do you have any political heroes?

I did admire Tony Blair. What I admired was his ability to get people to vote for him of a lot of different backgrounds. It’s alright preaching to the converted and going after your core vote, there’s no skill in that. The skill is getting people who are on the fence and who perhaps haven’t voted for your party before to believe in what you say and what you are doing. He had that skill.

tony blair 1997

Tony Blair after Labour's election landslide victory in 1997

5) When did you first stand for election?

2015.

6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?

I was in the Army.

[What about the shower gel advert?]

I got approached to be in this advert. Dove doesn’t use models – clearly, the used me – and I think they were looking for slightly overweight middle-aged men and they came to me. It was an advertising agency who asked me if I would like to do it, and I thought no, but then they put me and the family up in a hotel in London and gave us a bit of money, and I got to stand in the shower for four hours and get lathered up – what’s not to like?

When it came out, it was horrific. I was aware that it was out in the States, but clearly I didn’t tell anybody, but some little shitbag in Plymouth found it on the internet and sent it to the local paper, and a day later I was on page 3 of the Guardian, page 2 of the Express. Big full size pictures of me in the shower. It was gippingly embarrassing. It was filmed a while ago – February 2014. It’s one of a long list of things that people take the piss out of me for.

7) What do you do to relax?

I like to go running on the moor at home. I live in a small little cottage on the moor with my children and my wife in the middle of nowhere. I like to go out on the moor. I like going out on boats. Things like that – outdoor stuff.

8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?

Defence, clearly. That would be good fun but things like that are a long way off. If you try and do too much you’re never going to achieve it. Whenever I speak to the media I make sure I talk about one of four things, even if it’s ‘Come on and talk about your advert’ or whatever. Veterans, mental health, young people and Plymouth, those four things. If I can get that into every interview then I’m happy.

The way the military and foreign policy has been managed over the last 12 years hasn’t been ideal. It’s got an awful lot better of late and the issues are being resolved. For me to do my old job for example, if I was to do a kinetic strike on a target I would have to fill a number of criteria to make sure it was the right bloke in the right car, so I was killing the right guy essentially. It’s pretty tricky when it seems that due diligence isn’t done on a political level. It does make things very difficult. But that wasn’t my position at the time. You do what you’re asked to do and you just get on with it. There are things I do think are pretty unforgivable, I do think we got caught with our trousers down, not only in Iraq but then it happened again in Afghanistan. It’s alright making a mistake once but when you do it again you start to think 'Do the guys at the top really know what they’re doing?' In terms of even going into Afghanistan, we went into a situation that was completely different to what it was painted out to be and consequently we got found out. The sad thing is that a lot of blokes die and we can’t get them back.

You look at Syria at the moment, you look at ISIL at the moment, you’ve got to look back and think ‘When have we faced an enemy like this before and what have we done about it?’ Yes there was an Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan but it was nowhere near as strong as it was Iraq. People will look back on Iraq and think the whole thing was a complete failure but there are aspects of that place that set a template for how we move forward. One of those is in 2006-07 there was a Sunni uprising and 3,000 people a month were being killed on the streets of Bagdad and into that went Petraeus and couple of American generals and they went network hunting. These guys, these organisations, have a network and you go on a 24/7 intelligence-led network striking capability. The answer to dealing with ISIS lies around that.

The brutal truth is the more you kill, yes they are going to get replaced, but the skill set required to stay on the run for a long time often dies with the man who has gone. So yes, they will get replaced with a younger person and it will keep coming, but eventually, you will, as proved in Iraq, you can get on top of these insurgents. It’s not an impossible problem, but I do think we need the political will to say to our operators that we are giving you the political backing to do what you think needs to be done to control this. If we don’t, with Syria in particular and we saw this…we’ve got brilliant security sources and police in this country conducting what you call ‘goal-line defence’, trying to stop people coming in, you’re never going to stop everybody doing that. If we don’t get a grip on ISIL then I think it may get closer.

Some of us have a duty to win the public argument. This idea of ‘intervention’ and bombing and so on, it’s got a very bad press because foreign intervention in the last 12-15 years hasn’t worked out as some would like. But the idea we can look at that and then never intervene is false. We need to grow up and move on from the Iraq debate. Learn the lessons. The idea that Britain has a shrinking role in the world is wrong.

johnny mercer

Johnny with his wife, Felicity

9) What is your favourite film?

I saw a brilliant one called The Intouchables, I thoroughly recommend watching it and that’s my favourite film at the moment. Brilliant film, fantastic story.

10) Who is your favourite band/artist?

I quite like things like Jay Z and Kanye West, but I think Kanye West has definitely gone off the boil. I loved Jay Z’s set at Glastonbury set a couple of years ago where Noel Gallagher was like ‘he doesn’t belong’ and Jay Z plays it out and comes out with a fucking guitar strapped to his chest – I thought it was brilliant.

jay z glastonbury

Jay Z at Glastonbury in 2008

11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?

The access to information and your ability to speak to people and make a change. The best thing about it is I gave what was essentially a pretty averagely delivered speech about veterans and mental health, but the truth is these issues really matter to a lot of people and it got picked up on. It gives you a brilliant platform to go out and win the arguments that need to be won.

12) What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?

You can’t find your way anywhere. There’s no maps, there’s no nothing, and when you’re tired and slightly hungover it can be a bit tedious constantly getting lost. If you take the wrong turning all the doors look the same and my one always goes into the kitchen so I think they think I’m a compulsive eater or trying to steal some food. I walked into the Leader of the Opposition’s office but fortunately no one was in there.

13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?

I would make it more touchable, more tangible for the ordinary person on the street. There’s a gap between politicians and those they represent and I would like to try and close that in any small way I can. I’ve got a few mad ideas like direct democracy that I did for hunting, where people get to vote on it. I’m not sure that’s the right answer but I’m determined to keep working at it to see what we can do to make people feel more in touch with this place. Ultimately this is the people’s parliament, it’s not about us, it’s not about the Government, it’s about the people who voted for us, the people in Plymouth who struggle on welfare, the people who are in very low paid jobs, this is what it’s there for and I think I try and really focus on that regard.

14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?

Plymouth - it’s one of the most beautiful, natural harbours in the world. If we developed it properly it could be like San Francisco.

plymouth harbour

Plymouth - Britain's San Francisco

15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?

Best is I’m quite focused. If I want to achieve something I generally get it done. Worst is also that – I can be fairly exclusive in what I’m trying to do. It’s very mission-focused, but it could be a plethora of missions, it’s not just one individual issue. I’ve got these four things I want to address, absolutely focused on that. If you try and dilute yourself too much you won’t get anything done. I’ve got some clear aims I want to achieve, like with veteran’s care I want to change the term of what a veteran means in this country. I want to get kite marks on charities. That’s where I’m focused at the moment. I think if I was to try and build a career in the House of Commons it would be over before I knew it. My sole aim is to still be an MP in five years time. That’s it.