Watch: Johnny Mercer says ‘unelected adviser’ banned him from doing interview on veterans’ mental health
Sacked minister Johnny Mercer has claimed an “unelected adviser” banned him from doing an interview on veterans’ mental health in another broadside against the Downing Street “system”.
While he didn’t name the "senior" male adviser, Mercer said he had overruled Boris Johnson, suggesting he has – or had – significant power and influence in Number 10.
Mercer was appearing before the House of Commons defence committee to discuss his time as Johnson’s veterans minister, a role he was sacked from three weeks ago.
He was fired before a planned resignation at the Commons despatch box amid his frustration at a lack of progress on legislation to protect British veterans who served during the Troubles from prosecution.
Having already criticised Johnson’s “distrustful, awful” government and the Westminster “cesspit” following his sacking, Mercer again expressed anger when appearing before MPs on Tuesday.
Recalling the incident in which he was banned from doing the interview on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, Mercer said: “It was extraordinary.
“I will tell you the truth of how the system works.
“A senior individual in Number 10 phoned me up and said: ‘You’re not to do the Today programme talking about veterans’ mental health.'
“I think I recall saying to him: ‘Has the prime minister specifically said that to you?’ Because I didn’t believe he would say that.
“And he was like: ‘The PM specifically told me you’re not to do that tomorrow.’
“So I spoke to the PM and he had made no such pledge at all.”
Mercer, who had been veterans minister since Johnson became PM in July 2019, did not say when this exchange took place.
However, there was a three-month period after the 2019 general election where Downing Street banned ministers appearing on Today, before this was lifted at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reflecting on his lack of power as a junior minister, Mercer added: “When you’re operating in an environment where unelected advisers… I never profess to be the arch of all knowledge on the economy or green policies.
"But I don’t think you’ll find many people in this place who know more about veterans’ policies than myself.
“As a junior minister, you’ve got no chance, the way the system is set up.”
His appearance at the committee came after the government’s Queen’s Speech did not contain proposed legislation on legacy investigations, as had been promised, of Northern Ireland veterans.
Johnson has since promised there will be legislation, but Downing Street would not guarantee it would be in place within the next 12 months.
The proposed new system is expected to focus on “information recovery and reconciliation” rather than criminal prosecutions which are unlikely to succeed.
Former army officer Mercer left the government last month after it emerged the Overseas Operations Bill would not include soldiers who served in Northern Ireland. It passed into law on 29 April.
Mercer has previously called on the government to include veterans who served in Northern Ireland in a new bill to protect soldiers from prosecutions.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, relatives of 10 people killed in west Belfast in disputed shootings involving British soldiers 50 years ago welcomed an inquest ruling that their loved ones were “entirely innocent”.
The army has been found to be responsible for nine of the 10 deaths in August 1971, which included a mother-of-eight and a Catholic priest.
Following the inquest, Maura McGee, whose mother Joan Connolly was shot by a soldier, criticised the suggestions that the government will eventually seek to prevent historic prosecutions of military veterans by focusing on “information recovery and reconciliation”.
McGee said: “I don’t agree with an amnesty for anybody.
“I think you have to go where the evidence leads you and if the evidence shows there was foul play – whether you were wearing a uniform or a paramilitary uniform or you were wearing a t-shirt and jeans – if you killed someone you should answer for it.”
Watch: Johnny Mercer reacts to Ballymurphy inquest