Service record row and Sunak’s D-Day gaffe – but Mercer fights one last campaign

Service record row and Sunak’s D-Day gaffe – but Mercer fights one last campaign

“On the doorsteps I’ve noticed a real shift,” Johnny Mercer tells his assembled troops on the grass verge at a post-war council housing estate on the northwestern fringe of Plymouth.

Poring over a road map, the 42-year-old former Commando, wearing a polo shirt, combat trousers and rough-terrain shoes, says people are not liking Sir Keir Starmer, but that many are “pi**ed off” and don’t want to vote.

“I get that,” he says, before pushing the message to the small group that a local vote for Reform UK means Labour dominance across the city, with a second constituency likely already in their hands and a party-run city council.

“We can do this is. Don’t be downhearted – it has been difficult here,” he rounds off before thanking the mostly volunteer “heroes” for their support.

It’s more Duke of Edinburgh than a tour in Afghanistan but for Mr Mercer, this is a tough election assignment.

Mr Mercer told The Independent he will serve just one more term if he is re-elected due to the scale of abuse aimed at himself and his family.

Yet the campaign is one he appears to be relishing, marching down the street with his wife and “greatest asset”, Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, to knock on doors as passing motorists wave and sound their horns.

The day kicks off with Mr Mercer directing his team on door knocking duties (The Independent)

“People will think I’ve been in a fight,” he laughs, as he points out the impact of hay fever around his eyes ahead of his first door knock.

Five years ago, Mr Mercer was riding a wave of support as he successfully campaigned for a third term in office. Boris Johnson was pledging to deliver Brexit and that appealed to the constituency where 69 per cent voted Leave.

Mr Johnson paid a visit to rally support for Mr Mercer, who was up against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn in a city populated with navy veterans.

Further help came with the Brexit Party choosing not to stand a candidate.

When polling finished, Mr Mercer won easily, taking 61 per cent of the vote and winning with a near-13,000 majority over his closest rival, Labour’s Charlotte Holloway.

But 2024 is a different picture for Tory candidates, with some polls suggesting a wipeout in which Mr Mercer loses his seat.

This time, the veterans minister is up against another former serviceman in Labour’s Fred Thomas, an ex-Royal Marines Captain.

Johnny Mercer speaks at the door of one Conservative voter who picks up the issue on grass cutting (The Independent)

The contest turned personal last week when Mr Mercer accused him of “bloating” his military service, questioning whether he had served in combat missions as reported last year.

Labour responded that Mr Thomas is unable to discuss much of his role due to its sensitive nature, but that he was praised for commanding operations overseas.

Mr Mercer is happy to continue the spat but said he only got involved when it was raised by a member of the public at a hustings. He took his criticism to social media, with the row developing into a national story as both Sir Keir Starmer and former defence secretary Ben Wallace weighed in on the issue.

Johnny Mercer talks to Sharon Cross, manager of Porkies Cafe, before sitting down for a cheese and ham sandwich (The Independent)

He accepts Labour will come into power on 4 July, and he is keen to fight on local issues, presenting himself as a man for Plymouth who is Conservative, rather than a Conservative for Plymouth.

A large roadside poster fails to mention the Conservatives – although leaflets handed on Thursday include party branding.

“I am a Conservative, and I don’t hide it – I just take responsibility,” he says. “I don’t put responsibility on the party or the prime minister. Labour are happy to talk about Labour all day long. For me it’s what I can do for people here.”

He is frustrated by a bruising national campaign, adding: “I feel like we are gifting the country to the Labour Party.”

And while he talks of an “exceptionally gifted” Rishi Sunak, he says “there is no doubt that he has listened to advice that has not helped him”, highlighting the decision to leave before the end of D-Day commemoration events.

“I have done everything I can to change the veterans’ narrative in this country to change how we deal with it politically like we have never done before,” he says.

“This has been years and years of work and his [Sunak’s] record on policy is better than any of his predecessors, and yet it just takes something like that [D-Day] – yes, it’s pretty painful and crushing.”

He doesn’t hold back on the Tory betting scandal, which has seen the party withdraw support from two candidates, who are under investigation for allegedly betting on the date of the general election. Several other party figures are being probed.

He says: “I think your average person who goes out and works hard every day is obviously not going to be able to square in their mind that people with access to privileged information will make money off the back of it, whether you are in banking or football or whatever in life.

Johnny Mercer describes his wife as his “greatest asset” as they campaign together (The Independent)

“So obviously that’s going to piss people off and play into this narrative that unfortunately has been honed over many years. It makes life difficult on the doors.”

But on this day on the doorsteps, neither betting nor Mr Thomas’s military service come up.

Earnesettle, despite having one of the best schools in the country, is one of the most deprived areas in Devon. Its roads are quiet and tired-looking retail units under a block of flats include a pasty shop, Co-op and a kebab shop.

Some people greet Mr Mercer with a friendly shout of “Johnny”, while others have issues they are all too glad to raise, including grass cutting, water quality in the harbour, education and a lack of social housing.

Unlike other politicians often keen to avoid public conversation, Mr Mercer clearly enjoys the engagement. He tells them he’s worked on 50,000 cases since he took office in 2015, and he’d be happy to pick up their issues.

He’s talking so long to some that his wife is often wandering back down a road wondering where he’s gone.

It’s not all positive though.

One man with Reform UK posters in his windows scrunches up a Tory leaflet and throws it into the road.

“You can’t just throw that in the street,” says Ms Cornelius-Mercer, as her husband takes up her fight.

“Do you think I do f**k all?” Mr Mercer asks the man. “Think about locally; you will stick up for Labour if you vote Reform and I won’t be around to speak up for you.”

But the situation calms as the pair discuss their service in the military and go on to talk about immigration and support for veterans.

And what about Ms Cornelius-Mercer – is she enjoying it, what do people think of them working together?

“It gives people a measure of us as a family, as a couple. I just take the pi** out of him mercifully,” she says. “We are like every other family up and down the land and I think that’s nice because in this day and age a lot of people think MPs are from a different planet.”

As Mr Mercer marches onto the next doorstep – where a man answers, seemingly unaware of the election – it’s clear that, unlike other Tory candidates who appear to have given up, he is determined to hang on for another term.

But against the backdrop of an expected Tory wipeout, will he win? “I just don’t know,” he replies honestly.

Standing in the Plymouth Moor View constituency are Shaun Hooper (Reform UK), Sarah Martin (Liberal Democrat), Georgia Nelson (Green) and Fred Thomas (Labour).