Downing Street slapped down a sacked former minister today after he accused the Prime Minister of surrounding himself with ‘cowards’ and ‘desperately weak people’.
Johnny Mercer vented his fury at No10 after being axed as veterans minister in a row over the treatment of veterans of the Troubles.
He had expressed frustration at a lack of progress over legislation to protect former British Army soldiers from prosecution for crimes they may have committed up to 50 years ago.
Mr Mercer, a former Army officer himself, delivered a savage assessment of his time in the Government as he said he had been ‘treated like s*** throughout’.
He claimed Mr Johnson had surrounded himself with ‘people who will endlessly tell you what you want to hear’ and hit out at the way in which he left the Government after he was sacked via text – a move he described as ‘weak’ and ’embarrassing’.
The comments came after Mr Mercer had already described the Government as the ‘most distrustful, awful environment’ he had ever worked in and compared UK politics to a ‘cesspit’.
But asked about Mr Mercer’s opinion today, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters: ‘We would reject that. The Prime Minister has set out in his letter to Johnny Mercer his gratitude for the work that he has done in the role and the importance of the ongoing work that the UK is taking forward. I don’t plan to add to that.’
Johnny Mercer has stepped up his war of words with Downing Street after he accused Boris Johnson of surrounding himself with ‘cowards’ and ‘desperately weak’ special advisers. He is pictured on ITV’s Peston programme last night
Mr Mercer claimed Mr Johnson had surrounded himself with ‘people who will endlessly tell you what you want to hear’
Why was Johnny Mercer sacked?
Johnny Mercer was sacked before he could resign as veterans minister over new legislation giving legal protection to UK soldiers serving overseas.
Mr Mercer had been heavily involved in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which is going through its final stages in Parliament.
The legislation was developed in response to legal claims made against serving British soldiers and marines after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it does not cover former service personnel who served in Northern Ireland before the 1997 God Friday Agreement.
Mr Mercer wants the law to be extended to them, to avoid them facing historic prosecutions over alleged crimes committed decades ago in the 1970s and 1980s, when the province was in turmoil.
In his letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, Mr Mercer said the Government risks ‘damaging an already bruised veterans cohort further’.
He said he had hoped Mr Johnson’s premiership would ‘signal a step change in veterans affairs in the UK’ and that he had raised his concerns in a face-to-face meeting with him.
But Mr Mercer said he remained ‘genuinely appalled’ by the experiences suffered by some of those who have served in Britain’s armed forces.
‘I fought and bled alongside them, I’ve been far more fortunate than many of them since, and I have a duty to tell their truth to power,’ he added.
Mr Mercer said in the letter to the Prime Minister that not including those who served during the Troubles was his ‘red line’, adding: ‘They are not second-class veterans. They deserve the protections of the Overseas Operations Bill like everyone else.’
Mr Johnson said in his reply to Mr Mercer that the Overseas Operations Bill is a ‘crucial part’ of efforts to protect personnel against ‘vexatious and repeated’ legal claims.
‘But we are committed to doing more over the coming months, including for those who have served in Northern Ireland,’ he said.
Mr Mercer said he exited the Government because he felt like he was the ‘last man in the room who’s willing to fulfil our manifesto commitments’.
He also accused ministers of a ‘gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military’.
Mr Mercer has been replaced in the veterans minister role by former Scots Guard captain Leo Docherty, the MP for Aldershot.
In his formal exchange of letters with the Prime Minister, Mr Mercer said he was ‘forced’ to offer his resignation with a ‘heavy heart’.
Mr Mercer told The Telegraph that ‘leadership is all about who you surround yourself with’ in an apparent jibe at Mr Johnson.
‘If you surround yourself with desperately weak people who will endlessly tell you what you want to hear, driven by SpAds [special advisers] who have that classic combination of overconfidence blended perfectly with total ineptitude, you will get surprises,’ he said.
The Tory MP had informed Number 10 ahead of time of his intention to quit at the despatch box in the House of Commons but the information went public and Mr Mercer has accused Downing Street of ‘leaking’ it.
He told the newspaper: ‘It’s safe to say I felt like I was treated like s*** throughout, and the last act of leaking my resignation, which I sent as a courtesy only to Number 10 so that I didn’t ambush them, was a huge mistake.
‘And then when I refused to resign I challenged the Chief Whip to look me in the eye and sack me. He couldn’t do it, I left and he texted me. That summed it up. What cowards.’
Mr Mercer told ITV’s Peston programme about being sacked by text: ‘It is a bit of a disaster. It didn’t go as I planned. I thought I was doing the right thing.
‘It is poor. It is weak. It is embarrassing. But that is the way some people operate in Westminster.’
Mr Mercer had blasted the Government yesterday afternoon in an interview with Times Radio.
He said he believes Mr Johnson is ‘deeply committed’ to the Northern Ireland veterans issue ‘but the truth is that nothing, nothing has been done’.
He said: ‘And we’ve had an incredibly difficult year with coronavirus and all the rest of it and he’s the Prime Minister. He’s got all these challenges going on. And I respect that and I totally accept that.
‘But he should, you know, he should expect his ministers I think to be as committed to the manifesto as he is, alright. And if I’m made to feel like I’m the last man in the room who’s willing to fulfil our manifesto commitments, there’s something wrong. We reached that point, so I left.’
Mr Mercer continued: ‘This is the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in, in government.
Mr Mercer published his resignation letter which revealed he was ‘forced’ to leave Government
Mr Mercer said he will lobby on behalf of Northern Ireland veterans in Parliament, having said he made promises to those troops in Mr Johnson’s name
10 Downing Street claimed Mr Mercer resigned, but the former veterans minister said he was ‘relieved of my responsibilities’
‘Almost nobody tells the truth is what I’ve worked out over the last 36 hours. And, you know, so I don’t think anyone really can get on their high horse about trust and ethics and all the rest of it in politics, because as far as I’m concerned, most of it is a bit of a cesspit, I think we do have a clear commitment to follow through on our promises and do right by those who serve.’
Mr Mercer said he believed the Government was guilty of a ‘gross betrayal’ by failing to do more to protect British veterans who served during the Troubles.
He said: ‘The reality is that for these people, their experiences after having served this nation, 50 years later, they are constantly being dragged over to Northern Ireland, and asked to relive their experiences, it is people are drinking themselves to death.
‘It is breaking up families, it is ruining our finest people. And all they did was serve at the behest of this government at the behest of the House of Commons, to uphold the rule of law on the peace and when the peace in Northern Ireland.
‘And yet now we’re happy to cut them off to people who want to rewrite history. And that is all that’s going on, you know that nothing’s changed here.
‘But the politics, and for me, it’s a gross betrayal of people who signed up to serve in the military.’
Mr Mercer has been heavily involved in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was being considered by MPs this week as it goes through its final stages in Parliament.
The legislation was developed in response to legal claims made after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not cover incidents in Northern Ireland.