Johnny Mercer sacked by text message after row over Northern Ireland veterans

Robert Mendick
·3-min read
Johnny Mercer MP the Minister for Military Personnel and Veterans - Geoff Pugh
Johnny Mercer MP the Minister for Military Personnel and Veterans - Geoff Pugh

Johnny Mercer, the Veterans’ Minister, was sacked by text message on Tuesday as he accused Boris Johnson of lacking the “moral strength and courage” to protect ex-soldiers from prosecution in Northern Ireland.

Mr Mercer, a former captain in the Army, had told Number 10 of his intention to resign on Monday night but was fired 24 hours later in a pre-emptive strike.

Mr Mercer on Tuesday night posted on Twitter a letter of resignation he had originally planned to make public on Wednesday in which he criticised the prime minister for continuing “to say all the right things” but failing “to match that with what we deliver”.

He complained that Mr Johnson’s Government had “abandoned our people in a way I simply cannot reconcile” and added: “Whilst endless plans are promised… veterans are being sectioned, drinking themselves to death and dying well before their time – simply because the UK Government cannot find the moral strength or courage … to stop these appalling injustices.”

Mr Mercer had become increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress and had clashed with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary.

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In his resignation letter, he said it had only managed to secure his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Johnson last month at which he told the Prime Minister of his anger that veterans in their 70s and 80s were being dragged through the courts over “events often more than 50 years ago in Northern Ireland”.

In the course of a turbulent 24 hours prior to his sacking, Mr Mercer was finally summoned to a meeting with Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip, on Tuesday night. But talks descended into a stormy exchange and Mr Mercer walked out. The 39-year-old minister was invited to resign from the front bench, but refused.

Mr Spencer followed the meeting up with text messages, informing Mr Mercer he had been sacked. Allies of Mr Mercer on Tuesday night accused the Government of bullying.

Leo Docherty, an assistant government whip who has been the Conservative MP for Aldershot, Farnborough and Blackwater since 2017, has been appointed as Mr Mercer’s replacement.

A Downing Street spokeswoman put a more diplomatic twist on events, insisting: “This evening the Prime Minister has accepted the resignation of Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence People and Veterans. He thanks Johnny Mercer for his service as a Government Minister since 2019.”

The Prime Minister also adopted a warm and praising tone in a letter to Mr Mercer, which is likely to have been aimed in part at mollifying him.

Gliding over the ex-minister’s criticism of the Government, Mr Johnson said: “Your determination to fix problems and make life better for our defence personnel and veterans has made a real difference, and I am grateful for everything you have done.”

Mr Mercer, who set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, had notified Downing Street on Monday evening of his intention to quit ‘out of courtesy’ and was left ‘furious’ when it was leaked. He had planned to formally announce his resignation on Wednesday after his Overseas Operations Bill, which gives legal protections to soldiers, passes through the Commons.

Mr Mercer was unhappy that veterans from the conflict in Northern Ireland were excluded from the Bill and concerned no other legislation was in the pipeline.

Two soldiers in their 70s go on trial next week for the killing Joe McCann, an Official IRA commander, and Mr Mercer had told friends he did not wish to remain in Government by the time the case came to court. Up to 200 ex-soldiers are thought to face criminal investigations over deaths in Northern Ireland as long as 50 years ago.

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