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Dispute over service record and Sunak’s blunder on D-Day – but Johnny Mercer continues to fight for one last season

“I’ve noticed a real change right on my doorstep,” Johnny Mercer tells his assembled troops on the grass verge of a post-war social housing project on the northwest edge of Plymouth.

Wearing a polo shirt, combat trousers and off-road boots, the 42-year-old former commando pores over a road map and says people don’t like Sir Keir Starmer, but many are “pissed off” and don’t want to vote.

“I understand that,” he says, before sending the small group the message that a local vote for Reform UK would mean Labour dominance across the city, with it likely already holding a second constituency and the party running the city council.

“We can do it. Don’t be discouraged, it wasn’t easy here,” he concludes, then thanks the mostly volunteer “heroes” for their support.

It is more like the Duke of Edinburgh than a deployment in Afghanistan, but it is a difficult election challenge for Mr Mercer.

Mr Mercer said The Independent Due to the extent of the attacks against him and his family, he will only serve one more term if re-elected.

And yet he seems to be enjoying his campaign: He marches down the streets with his wife and his “greatest asset,” Felicity Cornelius-Mercer, knocking on doors while passing motorists wave and honk.

The day begins with Mr. Mercer giving his team instructions for their doorstep tasks.
The day begins with Mr. Mercer giving his team instructions for their doorstep tasks. (The Independent)

“People will think I’ve been in a fight,” he laughs, pointing out the effects of hay fever around his eyes before knocking on a door for the first time.

Five years ago, Mercer rode a wave of support when he successfully campaigned for a third term in office. Boris Johnson promised to get Brexit done, and that went down well with his constituency, where 69 percent voted to leave.

Mr Johnson visited the city to rally support for Mr Mercer, who was running against the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn in a city full of naval veterans.

Another help was the Brexit Party’s decision not to put forward its own candidate.

When the polls were closed, Mercer had won a clear victory with 61 percent of the vote, a majority of almost 13,000 votes over his closest rival, Labour’s Charlotte Holloway.

But in 2024, the picture is different for the Tory candidates: some polls suggest a crushing defeat in which Mercer loses his seat.

This time, the Minister for Veterans Affairs has to compete with another former soldier: Fred Thomas of the Labour Party, a former captain in the Royal Marines.

Johnny Mercer speaks at the door of a conservative voter who raises the issue of lawn mowing
Johnny Mercer speaks at the door of a conservative voter who raises the issue of lawn mowing (The Independent)

The dispute turned personal last week when Mercer accused him of “inflating” his military service time and questioned whether he had actually taken part in combat operations, as reported last year.

Labour responded that Mr Thomas was unable to provide further details due to the sensitive nature of his role, but that he had been praised for leading overseas operations.

Mr Mercer is happy to continue the row but said he only got involved when he was approached by a member of the public on an election campaign trail. He aired his criticism on social media and the row became a national story when 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
Johnny Mercer talks to Sharon Cross, manager of Porkies Cafe, before sitting down for a cheese and ham sandwich (The Independent)

He accepts that Labour will come to power on July 4th and he is keen to campaign for local issues, presenting himself as a Conservative for Plymouth rather than a Conservative for Plymouth.

A large poster on the side of the road makes no mention of the Conservatives – but the party’s brand can be found on the leaflets distributed on Thursday.

“I’m a Conservative and I don’t hide that – I just take responsibility,” he says. “I don’t put the blame on the party or the Prime Minister. Labour likes to talk about Labour all day long. For me it’s about what I can do for the people here.”

Frustrated by the exhausting national election campaign, he adds: “I feel like we are giving the country to Labour.”

And while he speaks of an “extraordinarily gifted” Rishi Sunak, he says “there is no doubt that he listened to advice that did not help him”, emphasising the decision to resign before the end of the D-Day commemorations.

“I have done everything I can to change the situation of veterans in this country and change our political response to it like we have never done before,” he says.

“It’s been years of work and his (Sunak’s) political record is better than that of his predecessors, and yet something like this (D-Day) is simply necessary – yes, it’s quite painful and devastating.”

He also doesn’t hold back when it comes to the Tories’ betting scandal. As part of this, the party withdrew its support from two candidates. They are being investigated because they allegedly bet on the election date. Several other party members are being investigated.

He says: “I think the average person who goes out and works hard every day obviously cannot imagine that people with access to confidential information are making money from it, whether they are in banking, football or any other area of ​​life.

Johnny Mercer describes his wife as his “greatest asset” in the joint election campaign
Johnny Mercer describes his wife as his “greatest asset” in the joint election campaign (The Independent)

“This will of course upset people and play into the hands of this story that has unfortunately been cemented over many years. It makes life difficult for the bouncers.”

But on this day, neither betting nor Mr. Thomas’s military service are on the horizon.

Earnesettle is one of the poorest areas in Devon, despite having one of the best schools in the country. The streets are quiet and beneath a block of flats are run-down businesses, including a pie shop, a co-op and a kebab shop.

Some people greet Mr Mercer with a friendly “Johnny,” while others like to raise issues including lawn mowing, water quality in the harbor, education and a lack of social housing.

Unlike other politicians who often want to avoid public discussions, Mr Mercer clearly enjoys the engagement. He tells them that he has worked on thousands of cases since taking office in 2015 and would be happy to take on their issues.

He talks to some people for so long that his wife often walks back down the street and wonders where he is.

However, it is not only positive.

A man with Reform UK posters in his window crumples up a Tory leaflet and throws it into the street.

“You can’t just throw this out into the street,” says Mrs. Cornelius-Mercer as her husband takes up her fight.

“Do you think I’m not doing anything?” Mr Mercer asks the man. “Think of the local people. If you vote for reform, you will be supporting Labour and I won’t be there to speak for you.”

But the situation calms down when the two talk about their military service and then talk about immigration and supporting veterans.

And what about Ms. Cornelius-Mercer – does she enjoy it and what do people think about the collaboration between the two?

“It gives people an impression of us as a family, as a couple. I just poke fun at him graciously,” she says. “We’re like any other family in the country and I think that’s nice because these days a lot of people think MPs come from another planet.”

As Mercer marches to the next doorstep – where he is answered by a man who appears to know nothing about the election – it is clear that, unlike other Tory candidates who have seemingly given up, he is determined to see out another term in office.

But will he win, given the Tories’ expected defeat? “I just don’t know,” he answers honestly.

In the Plymouth Moor View constituency, Shaun Hooper (Reform UK), Sarah Martin (Liberal Democrats), Georgia Nelson (Greens) and Fred Thomas (Labour) are running.

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