‘The way ministers talked to officials would have got them punched in the mouth in the army’ – ex-minister Johnny Mercer

Mercer says he had an “awful” time in government
Johnny Mercer. Photo: Reuters/Alamy.

By Tevye Markson

01 Jul 2022

Former armed forces minister Johnny Mercer has said the way ministers talked to officials during his time in government would have got them “punched in the mouth” in the army.

In a just published interview as part of the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series, Mercer discussed the tensions he witnessed between ministers and civil servants during his time in government - a period he says was “awful”.

Mercer, who is the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View, was minister for defence, people and veterans between 2019 and 2021. Before that, he served 12 years in the army and did three tours of Afghanistan.

Asked how his time in the army had helped to inform how he acted as minister, Mercer explained how his behaviour was different to some of his colleagues.

“Do you know, the biggest thing that helped me out from the army going into being a minister is, if you had talked to officials the way I’ve seen some ministers talk to officials, if you’d have talked to people like that in the army, you would have got punched in the mouth,” he said.

“I would always leave my door open so people could come by, pop their head in, have two minutes, ‘normalise’ the minister’s office.”

Mercer said being in the army taught him "how to shift from briefing the prime minister on a complex issue to dealing with soldiers at the lowest level” and “how important it is to be essentially decent to everybody”.

He said it also taught him how to bring people with you on a journey of transformative change, “rather than just going into the department of bright, capable people, dictate what you want to see, and expecting everyone to run around”.

“It’s basic leadership really,” he added.

Mercer said his number one tip to someone about to join the government would be advice that was given to him when he started off as a junior officer in the military: “Don’t be a dick. Treat everyone with respect. Someone is better than you at everything and knows more.”

The MP said his time in government had been “truly awful”.

“The only thing I ever achieved was when I was able to get senior ministers to publicly commit to something, and then they’d only do it so that they wouldn’t get caught out politically, rather than because they actually believed in it.”

Asked what his biggest achievement was, he said: “Changing the structure of government to get the Office for Veterans’ Affairs established is a big step because, even now, I don’t think you will find a prime minister who will come in and get rid of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, even if it’s only 15–20% of what I envisaged.”

Mercer also criticised the role of special advisers in the IfG interview.

“I mean, ‘special adviser’, the title is an oxymoron. I am really, genuinely, yet to meet a special adviser with any specialist advice to dispense.

“They operate – in my experience I hasten to add, I’m sure there are some good ones – but they operate like the kind of power-drunk politicos they used to have in the Russian army to make sure everyone was in line, who have watched one too many political dramas on the telly and think that the way to get things done is to be a shit to everyone.

“All with no discernible relevant background or experience, or indeed specialist advice to disseminate… I can understand why a secretary of state might need one, but literally just one.”

He also admitted, however, that the special adviser role “can work”.

“For example, there was a guy in the MoD who just focused on procurement for the secretary of state for defence, and he was very, very good,” Mercer said.

“But at no stage did he think he ran the department or that he could speak to civil servants as though he was secretary of state or tell junior ministers what to do.

“He just had his specialist knowledge, and he really added value to the department. So I guess I’ve corrected my own narrative there. There is a special adviser with specialist advice to dispense… but he was the only one.”

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