More on Government with permanent pants of fire

Boris Johnson’s government is “the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in” where “almost nobody tells the truth”, Johnny Mercer has declared after being sacked before he could resign as veterans minister on Tuesday evening. 

Newstatesman Morning Call 

He resigned, or planned to before the government beat him to it, after realising that the government’s pledge to protect former British soldiers alleged to have committed crimes in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from prosecution would not be forthcoming. 

It is, frankly, astonishing that it took him until now to work that out. The pledge, a Conservative manifesto commitment and Queen’s Speech promise that has been the focus of campaigns by Mercer and newspapers like the Sun for a long time, is simultaneously incendiary and likely to be meaningless if it were ever executed, a heady cocktail that means the government can almost certainly never deliver what Mercer wants. 

​​​​​The whole thing is reminiscent of the government’s line on the border in the Irish Sea created by the Brexit deal. For months, Boris Johnson insisted that no such border would ever manifest, a baffling promise that appeared impossible to fulfill or reconcile with the deal we could all read, signed in black-and-white. Then the government briefly threatened to break international law in order to avoid that border, it was short-lived, and now, lo, and behold, we have an Irish Sea border. 

The government’s repeated promises over Northern Ireland veterans are of a similar ilk. Aside from the (literally dozens of) political and practical problems with fulfilling the pledge, exempting British soldiers from prosecution for crimes allegedly committed during the Troubles would be in contradiction of the UK’s human rights commitments as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, a convention asserted in the Good Friday Agreement. That either means that attempts to enforce the provision would break international law in an incendiary and inevitably short-lived way, or they would be quietly superceded such as to render the British legislation meaningless. 

It should have been clear to Johnny Mercer all along that this pledge could not be fulfilled. But his display of anger is revealing of a pattern in Boris Johnson’s government. Mercer’s successor as veterans minister has repeated the promise of legislation on this issue in “the coming weeks”, and it remains impossible to see how the pledge can meaningfully be enacted. Boris Johnson’s government keeps making wild promises it can’t keep, most especially on Northern Ireland. The promises alienate nationalists, many unionists, unaligned voters, and victims groups in Northern Ireland, while the breaking of them is set to alienate the Sun, Telegraph, veterans’ groups, other unionists, and a swathe of the Conservative base, just as has already happened with Johnny Mercer. It’s not clear what the game plan is here.