Johnny Mercer on mental illness, grief and grit
July 2, 2020. Series 1. Episode 5
Johnny Mercer, government minister and former Commando, talks with brutal honesty about his childhood battles with mental illness, including severe OCD. And, with astonishing frankness, he describes his brutal and heart-breaking experiences in Afghanistan where he was witness to countless horrors, not least the death of his close friend Mark Chandler. An emotional, powerful – and for those looking for crisis lessons – useful episode.
Johnny’s Crisis Cures:
1. Stay strategic: “You have your goals and they have to be realistic; but once they are set the key is to focus on those and not get distracted by the niff naff and trivia.”
2. Keep perspective: “So much is down to luck; whether it’s an accident, whether it’s your career, whether it’s war, luck has such a heavy hand to play that you have to bear everything you do in perspective.”
3. It will end: “Seize the initiative; you’re never going to be in a crisis forever… whatever you’re going through things will return to normal just stick it out.”
We Were Warriors – One Soldier’s Story of Brutal Combat is available via Amazon.co.uk
Tickets For Troops: https://www.ticketsfortroops.org.uk
Help for Heroes: https://www.helpforheroes.org.uk
Johnny Mercer is the non-graduate who should never have succeeded at Sandhurst – but who went on to be one of the most combat experienced officers in Afghanistan. The non-voter who should never have got elected, but who is now a Government Minister tipped as a potential future PM.
What’s more remarkable are the challenges – as both a child and adult – that Johnny has faced down. An upbringing in a strict religious household that almost, in his words, destroyed his mind. A childhood that led him to develop an extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the management of which Johnny describes as a continual ‘work in progress.’ His approach to these crises, with the support of CBT and other treatments, was to find a greater, tougher challenge to focus on. That came in his three Afghan tours during which he risked his life almost daily. But it also left him confronting visceral grief when his close colleague and friend Mark ‘Bing’ Chandler was killed instantly as they fought side by side. I found Johnny’s methods of coping in these extreme situations compelling. Accepting and embracing that luck plays such a huge part in crisis situations, understanding and accepting your limitations as well as your potential and, perhaps most powerfully, remembering always that courage is just as contagious as fear.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning – https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.00 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? A new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying to put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:02.24 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but our guests will talk about their experiences honestly, often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply, these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:30.15 Andy Coulson:
Our guest today is Johnny Mercer, Minister for Defence, People and the Veterans. A former Army Officer himself, as a Captain in 29th Commando Royal Artillery, he completed three tours in four years in Afghanistan. To say that during that time he was exposed to crisis would be somewhat of an understatement. His job, as the leader of the fire support team, was to place himself in the most dangerous of situations, often under fire, to coordinate attacks from air and land, where just the slightest error of judgement could have fatal consequences for him and others.
00:02:01.06 Andy Coulson:
Johnny experienced the full brutality of war; indeed he was described as the most combat experienced terminal controller in the army at that time. As a result he was witness to countless horrors, not least the death of this close colleague, Mark Chandler. Those experiences drove Johnny, who until then had never voted, to stand as an MP in a seat that even his own party thought was un-winnable. Having walked the line between life and death in the most visceral of ways, he now walks the corridors of Westminster as a man tripped as a future Prime Minister.
00:02:33.01 Andy Coulson:
Johnny, thanks for joining us today. As someone who spent seven months at a time living out of a sleeping bag with rations and a shower fashioned from a plastic bag, I’m curious to know how you’ve coped with lockdown.
00:02:46.19 Johnny Mercer:
Lockdown has been okay actually, because there’s two sides to it. There’s the side that is the workload for the MPs offices, local MPs offices, as you can imagine have sort of gone through the roof because it’s been such difficult time for communities like mine in Plymouth. But on a personal level, look, I mean, I’ve got a young family, I don’t particularly like being in London or working in Westminster and so I’ve been able to be at home with my wife and children. Getting into t good routine, getting up early, getting work done and then being able to do exercise with my children and so on. Go for a surf in the evenings and so that side of it’s been okay. So I can’t say it’s been, It’s not binary, it’s not been excellent or terrible, it’s kind of different and I’ve enjoyed the different nature of it.
00:03:37.18 Andy Coulson:
We will talk, of course, about what you’ve learned about crisis during your time in the army but if you don’t mind I’d like to start at the beginning because your upbringing was an unusual one. You’re one of eight children. All of you brought up in a very strict Baptist household that you said, almost destroyed your mind. You were given Martin Luther’s surname as your middle name. No TV, very little contact with non-Baptists. You’ve written about that vividly in your book, We Were Warriors, but did that slower-moving crisis, if you like, prepare you in some way for what you were to encounter as an adult? Or did it leave you more vulnerable?
00:04:15.16 Johnny Mercer:
That’s a really interesting question. I think there were aspects of it that made you very resilient. But there’s no doubt about it, I think when I came to engage with the real world, if you like, outside of a fairly religious set up, it absolutely brought its challenges. And you know in some ways I had it easier than others, because I ended up getting a music scholarship and going to a boarding school, so I had more time away from home.
00:04:47.13 Johnny Mercer:
But for some members of my family to sort of leave that environment at home and then go straight into basic training with the Royal Navy, aged fifteen or sixteen, at the time of the Falklands War, the contrast between home life and the real world was pretty grinding and pretty difficult and had an effect on us all in different ways. So I think in some aspects it made you very, very resilient, in others, of course, it increased your vulnerability enormously. And I think many of us have had to meet that challenge in different ways as we’ve moved on in our lives.
00:05:33.05 Andy Coulson:
Is that sort of work constantly underway, if you like, is it a work in progress for you, continually? Or do you feel that your younger years you now fully understand, you’ve fully processed and you’ve got it in the right place?
00:05:49.20 Johnny Mercer:
It’s a work in progress. It think that mental resilience and mental fitness is something you work on every day. And I think that the more contemporary understanding we have of this, where actually, if you want to be fit and have a healthy body, you have to eat properly and do exercise and so on, actually if you want to retain a healthy mind you need to spend time looking after it. And I’ll be honest, I do do that, of course, I’ve found the transition from the military into politics a bit of a challenge. I find political life challenging. And my only real way of dealing with it is maintaining a strong mental balance.
00:06:37.16 Johnny Mercer:
And yeah, it is a work in progress, it’s not something that it ever you’re over the top of the hill and that’s it, it’s all downhill, I just don’t think life is like that. I think it’s something you have to have the discipline and resolve to continuously work at. But if you do you can almost cope with anything really. The human conscious and the human condition can cope with the most extreme challenges. And I think if you work hard, and it’s my prolonged message to those who struggle with mental health challenges, you can get better. There’s this nonsense out there that once you have mental health challenge, people don’t want to admit it because that’s kind of it, and you know, you’ll have that for the rest of your life. That is not the case, I know hundreds of people who have got better and carry on a pretty normal life. So it’s one of hope really, the message I would have around mental health, it’s one of hope and one of success, I think.
00:07:41.02 Andy Coulson:
Your childhood, and the mental health issues it created for you, manifested themselves in a number of ways. A sort of ‘constant argument in your head’ is how you describe it. But also an extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. Incredibly difficult challenges for a young man, Johnny, and at a time when OCD, in particular, was not taken especially seriously. I suppose my question is, how did you cope then?
00:08:10.11 Johnny Mercer:
You know, when I look back on this stuff, and I look back to what I did later on in my life in my twenties and thirties in specialist units in the UK military and things like that, and actually the hardest stuff I did was wrestling with OCD when I was growing up. Looking back on it now, and those who’ve had a similar condition will recognise this, the nights without sleep, endlessly checking whether it’s taps or lights or whatever it may be, trying to get things straight in your mind, the obsessive and compulsive nature of that condition is horrendous.
00:08:54.04 Johnny Mercer:
I mean, the World Health Organisation has it as the fifth most debilitating illness in the world. If you get OCD and you don’t have facets of it that affect different parts of your life, if you have obsessive compulsive disorder like I had it, it is extremely debilitating, exhausting and unpleasant. And I just remember back to those days and yeah, it was harder than anything I did in the military, was trying to keep on an even keel in those days, absolutely.
00:09:30.10 Andy Coulson:
What sort of therapy did you undergo at the time? I think you’ve mentioned cognitive therapy and antidepressants.
00:09:35.24 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, so that’s what really worked. Yeah, that’s what really worked for me. So a combination of a medical intervention and something called cognitive behavioural therapy which enabled you to kind of work through the machinations of how your mind works. And the medical side of that, I found kind of, just took the edge off the compulsions and enabled you to have the space to put into effect, to put into practice, some of the techniques you lean in a good CBT course. And that’s what really sort of got me over the hill.
00:10:15.06 Johnny Mercer:
So you know, I was incredibly lucky I mean, this happened to me quite late on so I had a good sort of twenty years of wrestling with this. But I found that worked for me, it’s something that I continue to manage now. But I think there’s a lot of, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around mental health challenges. We talk about it a lot more now, which is brilliant, no one talked about it when I was a boy. And the only reason I speak up, even now I’m sweating talking to you about OCD…
00:10:47.15 Andy Coulson:
Because of the recollection?
00:10:49.19 Johnny Mercer:
Because of the recollection, because it makes me very uncomfortable, but also because I’m talking about personal issues in a public forum. But if there’d been someone like me talking out twenty years ago, when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, it would have changed my life. And so that forces me to speak out and to talk about my experiences, however uncomfortable and embarrassing and so on they may be.
00:11:19.02 Andy Coulson:
You tried briefly, life in the city, once you’d left school but decided quite early that the army was the career to pursue. Having already experienced a fair amount of crisis in your life, to put it mildly, what led you to think, ‘I know what I need now, a war’? What was the thought process that led you towards, what some might describe as, the ultimate crisis?
00:11:48.18 Johnny Mercer:
So I think what I mean, definitely one of the areas of challenge, I mean, there’s a lot of functions to army life. It’s not what a lot of people seem to think it is. There’s a lot of different facets to it. Whether it’s the friendships, the relationships, the sport, the professional challenge. I guess one of the real things that drew me in and I did look at myself at that time and I felt very limited by what was going on around OCD and things like that. And I just thought to myself what is the hardest job you can do in combat? And the idea of controlling jets, aeroplanes, helicopters and so on, whilst continued in a close combat engagement was, in my mind at the time, I thought, do you know what, if I could do that I would have that would be my Everest if you like because of the condition that I had. And so that was a part of it.
00:12:50.09 Johnny Mercer:
But also as soon as I got involved with the military I’ve been surrounded by some very special people. So the military is a huge organisation, we have our challenges as much as anybody else, but the people I met along that journey just kept me going through what it was. So I never grew up wanting to be in the Army.
00:13:13.14 Andy Coulson:
A military family though?
00:13:14.21 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, military family. So my brothers went into the Navy but that was a very much a case of kind of getting out of home at the earliest opportunity, rather than a deep commitment to the nation.
00:13:27.11 Andy Coulson:
But you also have a relative who won the VC, right?
00:13:30.17 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, he was my great, great uncle or something, he was a guy called Jack Cornwall. And there’s a massive picture of him up on the wall down at Dartmouth, where Naval guys go to do their training. So yeah, there is an element of military history but I must be honest, it wasn’t… As I was growing up, I couldn’t see, you know, if you’d have told me I’d gone on to have a fourteen year career in the military, I wouldn’t have really believed it.
00:13:57.19 Andy Coulson:
So just trying to join the dots, having confronted, the mental health issues that you had at that stage, and together with the sort of reality of your upbringing, you had worked out and frankly, at a very young age, you’d worked out that the best way to deal with this is to just keep creating new challenges for yourself. That you needed to find something harder to be able to kind of deal with what you already had inherited if you like?
00:14:34.05 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, I guess I just wanted to conquer it. I just wanted to beat it. I felt like it was an opponent. And at times that’s not overly helpful. Because you learn to live with it and manage it. But yes, I want you to be able to show that I could have a normal life.
00:15:00.05 Andy Coulson:
But a normal life Johnny, would have taken you in a… For most people listening to this, I think that the normal life path would have been to go and do something easy, right? There are there are 1001 other different roads you could have taken, all of them would have been a lot easier towards what most people would recognise as normality, but you didn’t.
00:15:22.10 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, I mean, the thing is, everybody’s normal is very different, isn’t it? Because for me, I would find it very difficult… I did work in a city for a very brief period of time and I found I found that challenging but obviously not in the same way as the military. I see what you mean. But once I became set on this, on this ambition to be able to live a normal life with OCD and I saw the military as a vehicle to do that. I was committed and then once I was in… You know, become so, particularly early on in training it was it was pretty difficult the route in that I took and once you’re there, I mean, you’re not going to quit right? I mean that is like the number one…
00:16:15.08 Andy Coulson:
This is the All Arms Commando?
00:16:16.18 Johnny Mercer:
No, this is Rowallan Company before Sandhurst. So basically, if you go to Sandhurst, which is the Royal Military Academy, obviously you go there to be an Officer, but generally they have historically recruited people who are sort of twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, with a degree behind them. I was nineteen years old, no degree and what they do is they send people like me on an extra course. It’s quite funny really, because they teach you how to use a knife and fork properly, I’m not joking. And things like that, it’s interesting.
00:16:51.08 Johnny Mercer:
But also they, they put you through the mill a bit to see if you actually want to do it. Something called Rowallan Company, it doesn’t happen anymore. Forty-two of us started, twelve of us finished, but it was undoubtedly the best thing I ever did. And crucially taught me what I was capable of. So it fills you with quite a lot of confidence, but the same time where your limitations were, and having the humility to accept that. And that was a very formative time for me.
00:17:18.13 Andy Coulson:
We should explain, because you mentioned the scholarship earlier, that you were a music scholar. You were also of course a choir boy and were you a runner up, I think I’m right in saying, in the national choirboy competition. Presumably another crisis in your life is when your voice broke?
00:17:37.20 Johnny Mercer:
Do you know what, I was quite relieved because it didn’t break for a long time. I mean, it took me quite a while to develop physically, shall we say, and when it did break, I think I was quite relieved. But look, I was very proud of what I what I did back then. And it opened doors to me; I was the first you know, to have those opportunities because I worked hard at singing and that was the gift I was given. I was very grateful to have that opportunity. And it opened doors for me that I simply wouldn’t have been able to go to school like Eastbourne College had I not got a pretty hefty music scholarship. So yeah, these things are all about opportunities and I took mine.
00:18:22.19 Andy Coulson:
So that’s the, you talked about the challenge, kind of, rationale, if you like in terms of your decision to go into the Army. Where did the leadership come from though?
00:18:33.16 Johnny Mercer:
You know what, I was sat in the woods with a couple of guys from Hereford, doing some preparation for Sandhurst, who lived near me when I was in Sussex and I was…
00:18:46.24 Andy Coulson:
These were serving special forces guys?
00:18:48.16 Johnny Mercer:
They were serving Hereford guys. And they were talking about what life was like. And I actually wanted to join up as a Tom, what we call a Tom, go in as a ranker, because I wanted to do that side of things first. But they said actually that’s a little bit disingenuous. If you are good enough to do the leadership and command piece, get into Sandhurst and do all this other stuff, do the arduous courses and serve in these units, then you should go and do it. You know, so it’s a privilege to lead and if you have it, then it’s kind of disingenuous not to go and do it.
00:19:34.24 Johnny Mercer:
And I just felt that I’ve always had this kind of leadership thing in me, through sports days at school, or whatever it may b, through to early days in the military and so on. I’ve never wanted to be, sort of, king of the castle if you like and a general in the military or whatever. But I do enjoy small team, intimate team environments, intimate leadership opportunities at the small team level, at the junior command level. And I was really lucky because once I got in, obviously, with the way UK Foreign Policy went I was given plenty of opportunity to practice that on the battlefield.
00:20:16.22 Andy Coulson:
You write in the book about the chaos of Afghanistan. And you’re very critical, frankly, of the government’s policies at that time. You say that they set Helmand back thirty years. How quickly did the chaos of it all become apparent to you, once there? And how did you adjust to that chaos?
00:20:37.14 Johnny Mercer:
It was complete madness because when we first went in, and this was after Iraq. So I didn’t serve in Iraq. They did Iraq and the sort of horror stories were starting to come back. You know, individuals giving up their body armour and then getting shot and all this. And then we went to Afghanistan and I went in the early days and I just remember heading out there and we were equipped but we had, we had nothing like the equipment of later years. So we have what was called ECBA, which is basically a stab vest, essentially, with a with a plate in it. That was our body armour. And it was just little things like that.
00:21:22.00 Johnny Mercer:
I remember going to a meeting assurer. I was in charge of training an Afghan Kandak, which is an Afghan company, and so it was myself, a Royal Marine Sergeant and three Royal Marines Corporals, and then me and ninety-two Afghans. And we used to go for meetings with these guys, and blue-on-blues are happening all the time where, you know, obviously, the way the Afghan Army grew, we couldn’t vet people properly, so there were clearly Talibs in the ranks.
00:21:47.24 Johnny Mercer:
And we would go to meetings and you couldn’t take your weapon in, your rifle in, because it’s just, it kind of spoils the atmosphere a bit. But you know, there was nothing else available; there were no pistols were nothing. And I remember my boss saying to me once ‘Johnny, just take a knife, you know, that’s all we’ve got’. And I was just thinking to myself, it’s just not really the way of doing business that I envisage for a military that had spent a long time in Northern Ireland, had a very prestigious history, the very chaotic nature of it, which came down to planning in a way, I found difficult to cope with. And then the knock-on effect that that had on our people. So we put our people in positions that I just to this day, I don’t think it is fair to have put them in and it has had a lifelong effect on them.
00:22:46.23 Andy Coulson:
You stuck with it though. And on one tour you worked very closely with special forces. Your job essentially to help him identify and then capture the most dangerous of Taliban targets. Capture was often not an option and you were part of countless missions that killed. On one occasion, again in the book, you describe how you guided a missile to directly strike an armed Mullah, necessary but horrific work Johnny. How did you, how do you rationalise those experiences now?
00:23:23.04 Johnny Mercer:
I really don’t see it as horrific work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were aspects of it, of course, that were challenging, and that’s why you do it. But at the end of the day, there’s some pretty bad people in this world. And there were some pretty bad people in Afghanistan doing some pretty horrendous things. And we were engaged in mortal combat. And if I was not to take the opportunities presented to me, as sure as eggs were eggs, they’d take theirs. And I just don’t dwell too deeply on these things.
00:24:07.08 Andy Coulson:
You didn’t then and never have?
00:24:10.11 Johnny Mercer:
No, I mean, even less than, even less then. I try and get away from these sort of crap phrases like you’re there to do the job and so on. But it becomes kind of visceral, it becomes a kind of animal existence. And you want to go, you want to get out the door. If some guys have been whacked by an IED and people have been killed and so on, you want to go and find the guys who did it. And I don’t buy into any of this rubbish that, you know, ‘ah these poor people that haven’t got any other opportunities other than to lay bombs and blow people up’, I just never bought into that.
00:24:50.12 Johnny Mercer:
My heart bleeds for Afghanistan because there are some amazing people in that country. But the reality is, there are some people, some of these countries’ enemies, who are better off dead. That’s the reality. And they are unreconcilable. They wake up every day to try and do us harm. And you know, back in this country, we don’t like that. It’s a very unpleasant conversation and we want to put them through programmes all the rest of it. The reality is that some of these people are unreconcilable.
00:25:21.05 Johnny Mercer:
And what we ask our people to do, in order to protect the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy in this country, is often… people don’t like to think about it or talk about it. I think it’s a huge mistake. And it speaks a lot to the gulf, in my view, in the relationship between the political and the military in this country, that I must say is getting better, but what ultimately drove me into politics.
00:25:51.02 Andy Coulson:
I mean, you were, if you’re looking for… as you just described it very well that kind of motivation to get out to work every day albeit your work being, you know, so tough. You put yourself on the line every day, I mean, you were blown up three times, right? I mean, you were in vehicles that were blown up by IEDs three times, and it’s only purely by luck and by virtue of the vehicle that you were in, presumably, that you survived?
00:26:19.24 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, I mean, this this was in a later tour, yeah, where we were in a particularly bad place. And yeah, I mean, look, one of the reasons I found that not thinking about it helps, in a way, was because I just felt like had such a role to play in all this stuff. And yeah, I survived those three incidents and to be honest I had no effects from it at all. But I know people who didn’t, and all I can think of that separates me and them is luck.
00:26:54.12 Johnny Mercer:
I mean, if you’re standing on an open road, and someone engages you from twenty-five metres away with an automatic weapon… so they’ve seen you on the road with someone else, and they don’t take aimed shots, they spray it, and the guy next to you gets shot through the face and is instantly dead and you’re not, there’s nothing to… you know, there’s no point thinking too deeply about it because it is just luck. Could that have been you? Yes, absolutely. But it’s not, so let’s get on with it.
00:27:29.12 Andy Coulson:
You use the word luck. Did you ever use the word fate?
00:27:33.09 Johnny Mercer:
I don’t know about all this fate stuff. I think that puts too much of a planning nuance on it. I think it’s just luck. You know one of my friends, I have this conversation with him almost every time I see him because in my view, he is one of the luckiest man in the world. He’s got an outstanding combat record. He’s still serving. But in my view, he is incredibly lucky. He will say ‘but if you do your drills and skills properly and you watch what you’re doing, you reduce your chances and so on…’ That is true but ultimately, the ultimate hand is luck.
00:28:19.01 Johnny Mercer:
And so there’s no point getting too upset about it. Yeah, anything, even in politics, Andy, the ultimate hand is luck. Whether you’re in the right place at the right time. Whether you’re the sort of person people want to elect. Whether you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time when a scandal is coming down the road and someone’s going to cop it, you know, it’s luck. And far, far better people than me have ended up dead. And it’s sad, but it’s kind of life right, particularly in the military.
00:28:52.07 Andy Coulson:
What did you see in the way that others reacted to crisis? One soldier, you know, is shot but it hits his armoured plate and he can’t cope or process it, as you described. Another, a Sergeant Major, I think, gets shot in the neck and had to be held back from going back into the firefight. What did you learn about people and the different ways that they react to crisis?
00:29:17.23 Johnny Mercer:
But when there is a genuine crisis, and people have different kind of views of crisis, right? So in politics crisis is the minister’s tire wasn’t straight in an interview, right? It’s ridiculous. When you hit real crisis and real fear, there’s two things I learned. One is that it’s no respecter of rank or authority, it all comes down to character. And the second thing is that courage is as contagious as fear. So one individual can change the dynamic of what’s going on.
00:29:59.19 Andy Coulson:
Give me an example.
00:30:03.05 Johnny Mercer:
Well, when I was involved in fatal shooting, and once these Talibs know that they’ve killed someone, they know that you’re not going to leave that body behind. So they will try and overrun your position. So suddenly they phone all their mates on their shitty little radios. And they’re all saying, you know, ‘go here, do this, cut them off. We’ve got the infidels’ and all this rubbish. And at that moment, particularly when someone’s been shot and they’re not mortally injured, so it’s not a rushed… it’s not a like, fight against time to stem the blood coming out of them or something. They’re just switched off; their lights have gone off.
00:30:41.09 Andy Coulson:
00:30:41.22 Johnny Mercer:
The shock that goes around the guys is palpable. And at that moment, you can have a critical effect on what is going on. By either leading by example, which I think is always the best way, or just kind of pulling the situation round. And different people react in different ways. For me, there is only one way to react because I think if you react in the opposite way, more people get killed and the situation gets worse. So it’s not through any kind of noble, you know, ‘I’m better than this. I’m, I’m going to do it this way’. It’s just because I want to live as much as anybody else. And I want to get out of there as much as anybody else.
00:31:22.14 Johnny Mercer:
I think that’s what the leadership thing is, you know. Even through to my life now, people think when I speak out and in politics, you know, they think why is Johnny doing this? He wants to be in the newspapers or anything like that. Actually, I’m just thinking, do you know what, I don’t want to be in a Conservative party that is that gets ridiculed for not being able to deliver Brexit or not being able to do X, Y and Z. That’s the only motivation for it. It’s not to put yourself on a pedestal. And I think that’s what leadership is about. It’s about being in those challenging environments, and being willing to try and change it.
00:32:03.06 Andy Coulson:
You’ve touched on it, but can we go to June 8 2010? I don’t think any description I can give here, Johnny, would come close to communicating the horror of that day. In your words, what do you remember of that morning?
00:32:21.15 Johnny Mercer:
I remember it was a bright, very bright morning. I remember that it was it was another patrol. So we were in a routine of going out every morning.
00:32:34.00 Andy Coulson:
We should we should explain that that when you say we, it is it is you and in the main two others.
00:32:40.23 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, in the main two others.
00:32:41.18 Andy Coulson:
Mark Chandler who was known as Bing.
00:32:43.14 Johnny Mercer:
A guy called Mark Chandler, who was, kind of, my right hand man and a guy called Baz Barrowcliff, who helped me with the coordination of the air assets. And what we would do, we would bolt onto different patrols as they’d go out, because the patrols going out all the time and once you come under contact with the enemy and you start getting into a gunfight, obviously, it is very difficult. The only real way to end that, and to break it off, is to bring down overwhelming force and break the contact. And that’s basically what I spent that summer doing. So this was another morning, myself, Baz and Bing woke up, we went to another patrol base. And we just went out on patrol and it was a standard, pretty relaxed patrol. We could feel… well you can feel the atmospherics changing you can kind of feel something in the air.
00:33:39.16 Andy Coulson:
This is as you’re walking along a road you’d walked along before?
00:33:44.05 Johnny Mercer:
No we were pushing into a different area. I mean, you don’t generally walk along the roads. We would sort of push from irrigation ditch to irrigation ditch because the IED threat is so high you avoid everywhere where you think that the enemy think you’re going to be, right? So this is why it became such a ridiculous dangerous game. So, as soon as you come under contact, your immediate reaction is to get into cover and get into a ditch. Trouble is all the ditches are lined with IEDs.
00:34:10.08 Johnny Mercer:
So you’d try and think like the enemy were thinking the whole time and move in places where they wouldn’t think you would move, if that makes sense. And we were essentially pushing into an area. We became aware that the Taliban were watching us, because they all get up early and pray and then like to go for a fight, and yeah, I could feel the atmospherics exchanging. Women and kids started being ushered out of the buildings as we passed them. Continued to move into the sort of enemy territory. And then we were pretty sure we knew where the enemy were and what we were going to do was send one force in one direction, to draw the enemy’s attention and a bit of firepower, and then myself and a small team were going to kind of flank them and get in there and deal with the enemy position.
00:35:04.21 Johnny Mercer:
The trouble is it all went according to plan right up until the enemy saw us about twenty metres from them and we were very exposed, myself and Bing Chandler, were very exposed and just got opened up on. Very heavy weighted fire, very loud, very noisy, Bing was killed instantly. And yeah, I mean that’s the kind of moment where you earn your stripes. I’ve always thought that your rank and stuff is just a bit of embroidery really you have to live it and I felt that I had to at that time. Bing was killed, I had to get him off the road.
00:35:52.14 Andy Coulson:
It was more than that Johnny, because that that assessment of it is characteristically self-effacing. But the truth of it is that you then put your own life in mortal danger, knowing that Bing was dead, to retrieve his body and that was a decision that you made instantly.
00:36:15.18 Johnny Mercer:
Yes, but that’s not because I thought that I wanted to do that. I did that because no one else was going to do it and I wanted to get the fuck out of there. You know, it wasn’t like I… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain because you hear of people afterwards and they talk about their time in combat and they’re like, ‘yes, I stormed the enemy position with grenades because I was thinking about my regiment’ and stuff like that. I’ve got to be honest, my time in Afghan, and the stuff I did, was largely about self-preservation, right? So if I didn’t go and get Bing, nobody else was going to do it. We were going to get surrounded and more people were going to get killed. And I just thought to myself, if I did not sort this situation out, you know, we were going to be in a whole load of trouble.
00:37:12.22 Johnny Mercer:
And just on this actually, since I wrote the book is really interesting, because the guy in front of me… So I was working with this guy in front of me had a machine gun to try and get some rounds down into this enemy position to stop this idiot from firing at us. And he, kind of, he was very shocked by what had just happened which I’ve totally understood. But I was screaming at him to get the rounds down with what’s called a Minimi machine gun. He fired two I thought, right now, he’s got to do it now. So I ordered him to engage rapid fire into this building. And he fired one round and got stoppage. And as I got out onto the road his weapon stopped and I was like, ‘oh, man, you know I’m definitely gonna get shot now and this is really going to hurt’.
00:37:58.10 Johnny Mercer:
In the end I had it all missed me and I got in and you know the story is what it is. He wrote to me six months ago and it was amazing. I got this letter. He sent me pictures of his kids and he said ‘I remember that day like it was yesterday’. You know, he said some very nice things about me which I won’t repeat. But I thought that’s why you do it, that’s why you do it. And it’s for people like that, that I continue in this job now because I think they deserve a little bit better from the nation. And when you go into public life and you don’t know which way it’s going to go… But I’ve had a few letters like that, but that one really struck me that someone would remember that day so clearly, and our little role in it. And yeah, it was extraordinary. It really moved me
00:38:51.23 Andy Coulson:
The self-preservation, but you’ve explained really well. But it did go further than that. You know, I mean, this is someone that you’d work with. This is somebody you’re incredibly close to, in Mark. Someone whose job in fact was to…. I mean a highly skilled soldier himself, but his job primarily was to keep you safe so you could do yours. And you’re now, as you describe it very vividly in the book, you’re now holding him in in your arms trying to get him into the back of an armoured vehicle and away from there.
00:39:25.02 Andy Coulson:
And although you’ve explained, as I say, the sort of self-preservation element of it, I think anybody listening to this will be, A, full of admiration, I hope, but also, and appreciation, but also, will, I think ,struggle to compute how you manage to function. Although it’s your job, although you’re trained, although you’ve had all that, in the end you’re a human being with a good friend lying dead in your arms.
00:40:02.09 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, I mean, that was undoubtedly the hardest part, was dealing with him. So there’s a kind of, when someone dies instantly like that, there’s a period where they’re not kind of dead, they’re not cold. They’re kind of warm, and they’re on their way. You know there’s no… there’s nothing there, there’s nobody there but it is horrendous. It’s absolutely horrendous. And I remember like, we got him in, we wanted to get him into the back of an armoured vehicle.
00:40:40.04 Johnny Mercer:
So we fought our way out, I think it was about, I can’t remember now, about a kilometre of extraction under fire. It was absolutely gipping and I was exhausted. But we got him back to a vehicle. And he was quite tall so we couldn’t get him in… So we put him in the back of the vehicle but we couldn’t shut the door. And then I just thought sod it, you know, I took all my kit off, and I got in the back and I cradled him like a baby. And it took about forty minutes to get back to base because we kept on getting whacked on the way back. And so it was just me and him in the in the back of this armoured vehicle. I was literally like creating him like a baby. And yeah, he was, he wasn’t cold, you know, he was still kind of there but asleep. And yeah, horrendous absolutely horrendous.
00:41:31.01 Johnny Mercer:
And yeah, I mean, there’s… How do you do it? You think about lots of different things. I thought about how I would like people to look after and fight for me. I thought about his family, very much. But do you know what, I also thought a lot about my predecessors. And this is something that I thought about a lot when I was… There’s other incidents in the book when I was cut off on my own and things like that. And I constantly thought of people from Korea or World War Two who fought for the nation. You know, the real, in my view, the real patriots. You go into politics and everyone reckons they’re a patriot and they go on about freedom of this, that and the other.
00:42:26.11 Johnny Mercer:
You know, these were real patriots, and it was a it was a… You know, and I thought of them and I thought I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I didn’t want to embarrass the traditions and the values and the ethos that they upheld. And yeah, that was a big motivational factor for me. I was a Commando and you know, and I thought, yeah, I thought about my predecessors a lot.
00:42:51.21 Andy Coulson:
What’s astonishing is that not long after, I mean, literally in the same day, you’re back at work. I mean, you’re not on patrol, but you are overseeing operations from base. Your job is to guide in helicopters and missiles. And there you are, back doing that job, you know, within a couple of hours.
00:43:19.11 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, but it’s kind of… you know, if you don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it. It’s a bit like in some ways, it’s like why I became an MP. Because I feel like if you’re not going to do it, you can’t really complain. So if I didn’t get on with my job for the rest of that day, nobody else was going to do it. We would be unprotected from people who were trying to overrun the base all the time and it just wasn’t an option. The thought of sitting on your bergen and breaking down, it’s just not an option. And everyone handles this stuff differently but I never saw that as an option. So I can’t really get over why I didn’t take that course of action and why I just carried on. Because not carrying on was never an option.
00:44:19.18 Andy Coulson:
So how did you manage the trauma whilst still managing to continue to do your job in the weeks… I know you went back, obviously not that long after, and the first thing you did was to see Mark’s parents. But once you’re back doing the job again, how are you managing the trauma, if you like? Because you’ve got grief but you also say that you’ve got guilt as well. How were you managing those things? In terms of the techniques that you were using, Johnny? How did you get through the days?
00:44:57.20 Johnny Mercer:
There’s an element of guilt though I think there’s not a lot you can do about that. Honestly, I was really, really scared when I first went back out on patrol because there’s something about someone just having their light switched off, it’s not a blood everywhere fighting for their life. There’s something quite frightening about somebody just having their lights turned off, getting shot in the face. And for my first few patrols I was very, very scared. And that’s when you really earn your money because you have to have the discipline, the self-discipline to control that fear and do your job. And that was a period of acute challenge for me.
00:45:55.08 Andy Coulson:
Did people treat you differently? Did your colleagues treat you differently?
00:46:01.22 Johnny Mercer:
People did treat me differently in Afghanistan because there was a kind of… there was a little bit of a mythology built up, I think, around me and my team, which I found very difficult because as far as I was concerned a lot of it was just luck. We were in the busiest control base, right on the front line of all the Talibs who’d been pushed out of Mazār by the Americans. And yes, we were skilled with our engagements but there was a hell of a lot of luck involved. And then consequently people hear about your exploits and things and even now, you know, you still feel like a bit of a fraud because there’s so much luck and there’s so much dependant on other people.
00:46:54.03 Andy Coulson:
You had this reputation for accuracy and bravery but there were mistakes as well which again, you’ve been very honest about. When you got things wrong, for you of course getting something wrong, getting some coordinates wrong could have deadly consequences. What was your approach? How did you deal with mistakes?
00:47:17.07 Johnny Mercer:
So as soon as I realised… so I made a bad mistake one day and interspersed two different digits and landed an explosive in the wrong place. I didn’t kill anyone but it was a big mistake. And I think, you know what, when that happened for me, you’ve just got to put your cards on the table and you’ve just got to be, ‘look I’ve made a mistake’ and because the… I hate bringing this back to politics but the coverup is always worse. I mean, if people know what you’ve done… everybody knew what had happened, there’s nothing worse than someone who can’t face up to the reality of their situation.
00:48:03.15 Johnny Mercer:
And it does require courage and it does require self-examination. But the best thing I learned in the military was not all this stuff that everyone thinks. The best thing I learned was my own limitations and what I could not do and what were my limits and what were my lines. And the things it teaches you about yourself. And you have to have the humility to accept it when you get something wrong. It doesn’t mean it’s all over; it doesn’t mean it’s terminal but you have to have the integrity to do that. Otherwise how on earth do you hold other people to account? How on earth do you maintain these standards that you’re trying to hold everyone to, if you can’t even have the courage and resilience to deal with your own shortcomings?
00:48:49.17 Andy Coulson:
You were witness to the kind of first efforts of proper mental health support in a combat zone, the TRiM Process. What do you remember about it Johnny?
00:49:02.21 Johnny Mercer:
I mean, at the start it was a bit of a joke to be honest, and we’re all to blame. We are all to blame for that. The way we took mental health and the way we dealt with mental health and the footing we had mental health on, I think we are all to blame, including myself for not taking it seriously enough. I think people tried very hard in the early days but I didn’t take it particularly seriously. Do you know what, I didn’t really take it seriously until I saw catastrophic breakdowns from people on the battlefield.
00:49:38.10 Johnny Mercer:
And that’s really, it’s really not good enough from me because I think the issues around mental health have been well known for a while and it should not be the sort of issue that people understand simply because it’s happened to them or someone they know. That’s kind of 1950s thinking, right? Mental health, clearly, we understand a lot better now and we try and treat it like having a physical health problem. But it think I was as guilty as anybody else of not really understanding things like battle fatigue and things like that until I saw it. And I regret that very much.
00:50:19.24 Andy Coulson:
But it also sowed the seeds of your decision to move towards politics, right?
00:50:23.22 Johnny Mercer:
It did because I thought to myself, what I found really difficult to deal with was the contrast between how leaders in our country talked about military service and talked about valuing these people and talked about pride and professionalism. The contrast between that and the reality for a lot of people who came home from those conflicts, was too great for me. And it’s really hard to explain but once you’ve been through these experiences it becomes very hard to let… and you realise how lucky you are, it becomes very difficult to let it go.
00:51:08.06 Johnny Mercer:
And I came home in 2010 from that tour and yeah, in 2012 more of our guys took their own lives than were killed in the conflict. People still weren’t talking about that; I could not believe it. And I was like, this has to change. When are these guys going to understand, from the Prime Minister downwards? It wasn’t really the Prime Minister, David, who you and I know and so on, I know that he got this kind of stuff but there is some sort of institutional handbrake going on when it came to looking after veterans in this country. And it thought the only way I’m going to change that… I’m going to become a member of parliament and I’m just going to bore everyone to tears on this issue until we actually get somewhere. And yeah, like you say, for most people in this country had nothing to do with politics and have no idea where to turn and I was one of those people.
00:52:09.23 Andy Coulson:
You’d met some politicians; I think actually we might actually have been in Helmand at the same time when I visited with David Cameron.
00:52:16.11 Johnny Mercer:
So you came on a visit when I was doing some stuff with a specialist unit in 2008, you came out and visited our compound,
00:52:29.13 Andy Coulson:
That’s right, with the dogs.
00:52:31.00 Johnny Mercer:
With the dogs, that’s right. And David was there and William Hague was there as well. But we met others.
00:52:39.19 Andy Coulson:
We should explain these are special forces dogs, one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen.
00:52:46.09 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, and yeah, obviously I was impressed by David and William and others but I did feel there was a significant gap between what they were told and what they thought we were doing and the reality of foreign affairs and foreign conflict. And that was fine up until the point that it impacted on people’s lives, where they couldn’t get the mental health support they needed, where they might get a nice set of prosthetics for their first year but how were they going to live the remainder of their sixty years with no idea where they were going to get their prosthetics from. I’m afraid I’ve always had a pretty dim view of politicians. Not from that specific visit, I must say, but…
00:53:39.21 Andy Coulson:
00:53:42.10 Johnny Mercer:
Honestly, mate, I just think…
00:53:46.00 Andy Coulson:
I’m interested actually because I remember the visit. And I was acutely aware that this is a bunch of politicians and some of their advisors, me included, being dropped into what was essentially a sort of day visit there. And I remember looking at you guys and you can see that you’re living it and you’re thinking why on earth am I having to spend my time having to chaperone these people around. What did you make of the politicians in that environment, because it wasn’t the only time there were plenty of others?
00:54:24.15 Johnny Mercer:
In that environment, and I’m not just blowing smoke, but David was very good with the guys, he was very good with the guys. And so that was a much more comfortable experience. There were others who I don’t want to drop in the poo, and it was a nightmare, it was a complete nightmare. You had a standard presentation when you came out and within some of that presentation would be predator footage of the guys on target doing what we need to do to either detain these guys or whatever. And a very, very prominent guy at the time asked us to turn the footage off, he didn’t want to see it. And the guys were like, ‘well hang on, we’re out there doing this for you and you won’t even watch it on TV’.
00:55:15.10 Andy Coulson:
You don’t even want to watch the footage.
00:55:17.18 Johnny Mercer:
You know and it was that combined with the warm words. The warm words really got me. You know like on Remembrance Day and things like that and how people would say, ‘we owe a massive debt to these people’ and I was thinking to myself, yeah, but you’ve got absolutely no intention of ever paying it. I found warm words from politicians very, very difficult over the years.
00:55:41.22 Andy Coulson:
How did you find the relationship with the public? Because there have been times, still are, one would love to think, where the connection between the British military and the British public is what it should be. But there are times when it’s not as well.
00:55:57.11 Johnny Mercer:
In my view the British public absolutely bailed us out. If you remember the explosion in growth of some of the service charities when we saw the level of casualties coming back, Help the Heroes.
00:56:10.16 Andy Coulson:
Stepped into the breach.
00:56:12.10 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, all of this stuff, right? The British public have always got it, in my view. Extraordinary efforts to raise money and to care for these people. But there has been a mental block in Whitehall for decades about where the line is as to who looks after these people. And the problem is it’s totally distorted the debate. Because charities, to raise their money, clearly have to talk about how soldiers are injured and so on. The vast majority of us leave completely enhanced by our experiences, had a great time but there is a small minority that we need to look after.
00:56:48.11 Johnny Mercer:
And then the British public start to get a different view about what military service is about and it’s about coming out injured and unwell and all this nonsense. Which is totally the opposite to the truth. In my view we’ve been bailed out as a country by the great British public over and over again. And that brings us to an interesting point today where overt operations like Iraq and Afghanistan are in the decline and so public giving is in the decline to service charities but the need continues to go up.
00:57:20.13 Johnny Mercer:
And this is why I was so keen, when Boris became Prime Minister, to get him to commit to these commitments that he has done because we were at a seminal moment where there does need to be more of a shift towards state provision. It’s no good just saying we have a duty to these people; we respect what they’ve done. You actually have to provide something meaningful that will affect their lives. And we are beginning to do that.
00:57:47.22 Andy Coulson:
You joined the dots incredibly quickly when you decided, I’m leaving the army and I’m going into politics. There were some jobs in between obviously to fund your campaign including on a building site and an advertising campaign that perhaps we should sort of gloss over here Johnny.
00:58:03.21 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, let’s gloss over that.
00:58:06.22 Andy Coulson:
But the decision was immediate.
00:58:10.10 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah it was because it was…
00:58:10.07 Andy Coulson:
I’m leaving the Army; I’ve identified the problem that I want to play a part in solving and I’m getting into politics.
00:58:17.24 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, I mean, it was really and it’s been a constant source of friction for me ever since. Because I don’t understand people who don’t go into politics with a cause. I just don’t see the point of it. I don’t understand people who get to a certain stage and think ‘oh I’m going to go into politics now, that looks like good way of life’. It’s kind of two different ways of looking at a coin.
00:58:47.20 Andy Coulson:
Where do you see the balance right now?
00:58:49.18 Johnny Mercer:
Politics is a vehicle for getting things done.
00:58:50.18 Andy Coulson:
Is it between those career politicians as you’re describing them and people who you think are going into politics with the right frame of mind.
00:58:58.15 Johnny Mercer:
Well it’s really difficult because I don’t… and I’ve given interviews in the past where I’ve tried to describe this to a greater or lesser extent and I don’t want to offend anybody, but I genuinely don’t understand why you would just become a politician and choose that as a way of life and just want to be a minister in any department, just because you like being a minister. I just don’t understand it. For me politics is literally a vehicle for getting things done and for chaining people’s lives and making the system work for people who need it to work. And that I saw that very clearly from the beginning.
00:59:42.01 Johnny Mercer:
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’ve been a number of heavy collisions in my journey into politics. One was with the Conservative party when I first joined, were absolutely not interested. Never won in Plymouth Moor View, thought I was slightly deranged for thinking I could win and…
00:59:59.14 Andy Coulson:
Wanted you in fact to spend your time and efforts campaigning for someone who was in the neighbouring seat.
01:00:03.21 Johnny Mercer:
Yeah, elsewhere and basically didn’t want me, which I obviously completely understood, but thought was a little bit unfortunate. And it’s been like that ever since. I’ve had to kind of kick the door down and come in my own way. And that has very much shaped my experiences and my views as to what’s going on.
01:00:30.22 Andy Coulson:
So you touched on this earlier but just to get back to the theme of crisis, you’re arriving in Westminster, which British politics of course a rolling crisis, when you’ve walked that line, as I said earlier, between life and death, how do you get motivated for the sort of day to day ups and downs of politics, the game playing elements? There are of course some deeply rewarding days but there’s a load of nonsense as well, isn’t there?
01:01:00.21 Johnny Mercer:
Yes of courses, it’s very difficult, it’s not enjoyable. But the trouble is, Andy, for idiots like me who actually believe in something, you’ll kind of put up with almost anything to achieve what you’re trying to do. So the trouble is I believe in this cause so much, I genuinely believe that these people I served with on operations are the best of us, and I genuinely believe that they deserve better from this nation. I genuinely believe that we should not be endlessly trying to prosecute people who’ve served on operations and hand them over to human rights lawyers just to make money. I genuinely believe this stuff, that you’ll almost take any hits in order to achieve that.
01:01:50.11 Johnny Mercer:
And that’s the problem because it becomes like military training in a way. Like once it gets difficult you know you’ve never going to quit, right? You know you’re never going to quit. And so you know, in politics I know I’m just going to hang on until I’ve achieved these things. I may get sacked I may not get sacked. I may lose friends; I may make friends. But one thing I know is that I will keep going because these people in my view deserve it. And the support I get outside of politics and outside of Westminster is like that guy writing to me I told you about. That made my year. And then for me that’s what it’s all about.
01:02:32.05 Johnny Mercer:
I have absolutely no illusions how unpopular I am in Westminster amongst my colleagues and other people. I’ve had to do it all very differently to them. I haven’t waded around in un-winnable seats or been in the Tory party for twenty years or have a picture of Margaret Thatcher on my wall, I get it. But it just doesn’t bother me because I’m here to achieve for other people that I care about. So when you’re in that mindset, I actually find it a lot easier because the day to day crises you’re talking about there, they just don’t really bother me. Do you know what I mean? So there are things that really bother me that, you know…
01:03:12.22 Andy Coulson:
How do you actually react then? Because politics is also a team sport, right? You’re a government minister and you’re part of a team and there’s a whole bunch of expectations around that, so when you’re seeing what your colleagues are considering to be a genuine crisis, either for them or the party, and you’re frankly chuckling to yourself because you know what a proper crisis looks like, how are you handling that?
01:03:44.06 Johnny Mercer:
Because as committed as I am to those causes you also achieve nothing on your own. You achieve nothing on your own. And that is as true in politics as it is in anything else and you have to be able to craft together teams and relationships in order to deliver your outcomes. If the party is in trouble or concerned about something. It wasn’t in my best interests to describe Theresa May’s government as a shit show. I can assure you going to work the following week was pretty unpleasant and you know for whatever political career I may or may not have that hasn’t done me any favours. But if we’re not going to win as a Conservative party, if we’re not going to be successful then frankly these things, these ambitions I have around the military, yes, but also these other things in Plymouth, poverty, life chances agenda, all these other things, they’re never going to happen if the Conservative party doesn’t do well.
01:04:54.02 Andy Coulson:
How are you feeling about the six months ahead?
01:04:57.02 Johnny Mercer:
I think we’re in for a very difficult time if you see what has happened to the economy and we’ve lost twenty years of growth in three months. I think some aspects of what has gone on will recover quite quickly. So down here in Plymouth there’s a lot of tourism and visitor economy and with quarantine in place and things like that I think you are going to get visitors coming back down here and I think there’ll be a quicker recovery.
01:05:21.07 Johnny Mercer:
But in things like manufacturing and so on, we have to be configured to be Covid-secure going forward and that is undoubtedly going to change and it’ll be probably hardest to change for small and medium sized businesses that are the backbone of the economy in places like Plymouth. So I think we’re in for a tough time, we’ve got our work cut out and nevermore do we need a competent, compassionate Conservative party and I’m proud to be part of that and I’ll do everything I can to make sure we stay on the rails and deliver, not for ourselves, but for the people who need us to.
01:05:59.14 Andy Coulson:
Johnny, thank you for your incredibly powerful insights really, in the conversation that we’ve had today. I’m really very grateful for the way that you’ve approached it. Not least, as of course you are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of your third child. I know it’s due any moment. So that you took time out to talk to me today, I’m incredibly grateful. I’ve got one last question. We ask all our guests for their crisis cures. Three things that help them through the dark days, anything but another person. What are yours?
01:06:47.09 Johnny Mercer:
The three things to help you through a crisis. One is maintenance of the aim. So maintenance of the strategic aim. So you have your goals and they have to be realistic. But once they are set the key is to focus on those and not get distracted by the niff-naff and trivia that seems a really important thing at the time, but actually if you take yourself out of that position and you think strategically, to maintain that strategic focus I think is very, very helpful.
01:07:26.18 Andy Coulson:
So I want these to be, as much as possible to be personal to you. So when you applied that…
01:07:31.11 Johnny Mercer:
So for me that’s what I do now. So when I’m under pressure now, when someone writes something horrible about me in the newspaper or whatever, I think about my strategic focus on how I’m trying to change this country’s relationship with her military and her veterans. And I get a hard time but at the same time I’ve established the UK’s first Office for Veterans Affairs, we have a Prime Minister whose committed to ending vexatious claims. We are making progress in these areas like we’ve never made before. Is it fast enough? I’d love to go faster but that’s not realistic. So maintaining a focus on the strategic picture. I think it’s really important to have a perspective and to have a balance in your life because so much is down to luck, so much. Whether it’s an accident, whether it’s your career, whether it’s war. Luck has such a heavy hand to play that I think you need to bear all these things in perspective.
01:08:34.03 Andy Coulson:
How do you get that balance?
01:08:36.21 Johnny Mercer:
How I get that balance, is by making sure my time is very mixed. So for example, I’ve never bought a flat in London until very recently because I’ve now got three children. But in five years I’ve been living out of hotels because I wanted, as soon as the flag was dropped in London and the three line whip was off, I wanted to get back to my family. Because for me the family provides that balance. When I’m here I eat properly, I do a lot of exercise, we go to the beach together, we spend time together and I’d rather listen to my daughter’s homework than read the latest government lines on what’s going on. I think that’s really, really important.
01:09:19.16 Johnny Mercer:
And the final bit, I would say, is accept in a crisis, is to seize the initiative really. To think that you’re never going to be in crisis forever. So whatever situation you’re going through, it’s never going to last forever. So if you think of the situations I’ve been in or you’ve been in, you’re not going to wake up every day like that movie and it’s going to be Groundhog Day and you’re going to be doing it forever. So just get through it, just do what you need to do to get through it. Don’t flap about it and things will return to normal, you’ve just got to stick it out. And so in that regard just never, never wrap, never give up, don’t even entertain that as an option. And things will always get better.
01:10:20.23 Andy Coulson:
Very good. Johnny, thanks again for your time. Very, very much appreciated.
01:10:26.16 Johnny Mercer:
01:10:28.02 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. there are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
01:10:50.24 End of transcription