A few weeks ago, Johnny Mercer spoke in Westminster on the future of conservatism. At the end, the audience was asked by the host who should be the leader capable of delivering all this and a voice from the back shouted: ‘Johnny!’ It was his wife, Felicity. She’s not alone in her admiration. Throughout parliament, there’s talk of Brexit having been messed up not just by Theresa May but a whole generation of career politicians. So perhaps, it’s argued, the new leader should be from a younger generation, with a very different CV. Someone who can make inexperience into a virtue.
This 37-year-old former army captain might not be running for the job — ‘It’s not a position you self select to’ — but he certainly hits the right notes. He openly despairs about the current state of the government and predicts that if the Tories go into an election now, calamity will follow. ‘The party will get wiped out,’ he says. ‘We’ll get top-sliced and bottom-sliced by those who don’t want any Brexit — and those who want a Ukip version of Brexit. We’ll just get left behind and Jeremy Corbyn will be prime minister.’
He likes to do things differently, and initially suggested doing-the interview while running along the river. I politely declined, so instead he just met me in his running gear. He has always gone against the Tory grain. He won his seat (Plymouth Moor View) from Labour in 2015 with no help at all from the central Tory machine. He has openly criticised his party’s policies on areas ranging from welfare to veterans’ rights. A few months ago, he made headlines for calling his own government a ‘shit-show’.
It’s common now for Tory MPs to attack the party leadership. But Mercer is sceptical of those doing it only since it became fashionable. ‘You have people lining up saying: this is all a disaster and aren’t we terrible. I think it’s a bit disingenuous: the time to say that was six or seven months ago, when I said it,’ he says. ‘It’s not like I’ve got a degree in PPE from Oxford. But it was very clear to me that this was going to end badly — so it was time to say something, to try and get a slight shift in direction. Now, has it got better? I mean you don’t need me to answer that.’
Mercer has been on a ‘normal journey’ when it comes to Brexit. He ‘never thought about the European Union’ before entering Parliament and voted Remain ‘out of loyalty’ to David Cameron but now thinks voters made the right decision and ‘we need to get on and see that through’. He’s appalled that the Prime Minister cannot hold a meeting without anonymous quotes emerging in the press. ‘You couldn’t run Tesco, you couldn’t run a corner shop, if all your workers went out and briefed the local press,’ he says. His blunt advice to them: ‘Put your name to it and say it or shut the fuck up.’ The next leader should also be chosen based on their outlook rather than their age, he says. ‘It is about whether you view this place as a stage to prance around on and think you’re in a TV programme like The West Wing — or whether you see politics as a vehicle to get things done.’
Does he agree with Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, who has said the next Tory leader should be a senior Eurosceptic who can navigate through the next phase of negotiations? ‘Why would Chris say that?’ he asks mischievously. ‘Are you telling me that we need someone who has been here a long time to lead us into the next election? I don’t agree.’
What then about ministerial experience? Is that needed before taking on the most important job in the country? ‘I’m afraid I’m not one of these people who thinks that years of cabinet service are a mandatory precursor to becoming prime minister. The idea that you can’t learn about leadership and management and run big successful organisations anywhere outside of government is complete rubbish.’ He goes on: ‘Obama was a first-time senator. We need to put more emphasis on people who can lead a team, who can sell a vision, who can lead a country, inspire a nation.’
With the right leader, Mercer believes the Tories would be unstoppable. ‘There’s this massive disengaged centre that the elite would have us think are just not interested in politics. That is rubbish. They have never been more connected. They are just waiting to be set on fire by good, competent, modern, centre, centre-right aspirational future politics. It’s really exciting. I honestly believe it will be like dropping a match into petrol. They want to be engaged, they want something to vote for. But we have to go and earn it.’ The last election, he says, was a case study in what not to do. ‘You can’t just go around saying: “Did you know about Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA?” Everyone was like: “Yes, all right, it sounds bad. But Granny’s operation has been cancelled for the third time, what are you actually going to do about that?”’
Mercer’s own politics are more Cameron than May. He is against any future tax rises, believes government spending can be reduced, is open to arguments on drug legalisation, wants to build more homes on the green belt, and believes police stop-and-search ‘should never have been cut’. He also wants to see more power given to the membership. He would like the Tory leadership rules changed so that members can choose between four, rather than two, candidates. Mercer argues that this would strengthen the process as the candidates would ‘be forced to go outside of Brexit’.
It isn’t just on the leadership that Mercer things members should be listened to more. After Dominic Grieve lost a confidence vote by his local party in Beaconsfield over his backing of a second referendum, Tory MPs have been quick to take to social media en masse to say the result should be ignored. Mercer isn’t so sure. ‘I don’t want to be part of any party that is deselecting people but the reaction to that particular thing did worry me. I think if I had made my position clear on a number of issues then without recourse to my association changed my view and campaigned in the diametrically opposite direction, I’d expect my association to be very upset with me.’
Mercer didn’t go to university, didn’t vote before he entered parliament and is the only sitting MP to have stripped off in an advert, for Dove soap back in 2014. He won’t be pinned down on whether he has leadership ambitions, insisting it’s the wrong conversation to be having ‘at a time of national challenge’. But he is often named as a candidate, with some critics accusing him of being too handsome to be taken seriously as a future leader. ‘I am too good-looking to be prime minister? Well, that sums up the ridiculous nature of the debate,’ he says. I press on. Should it happen, how would he feel about being the first prime minister to have bared all? ‘Hopefully I won’t be the last,’ he says with a smile. ‘I think it should be a precursor. A good physical examination!’ The bookmakers have him at 50:1 — a bet he wouldn’t advise readers to take up. And his wife? ‘She has always thought far too much of me. It’ll be her undoing. She’d put the money down.’