The speech made by Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, in Manchester on 4 October 2023.
If it’s any consolation, I’m surprised they gave me this slot as well!
Conference, thank you very much and good morning and thank you to Penny.
It’s good to be here today. Because these are important days.
It’s good to be able to say thank you to all of you who have taken the time to attend this week.
It’s not been easy. I know that – you know that. I just wanted to say thank you to you, very publicly, for all that you have done over the last year.
You are the heart of the party. The volunteers, who are simply there because you believe in our mission; in what the Conservative Party is trying to do. It’s been hard. I acknowledge that.
But I have one purpose standing here before you today.
Because yes, I’m a campaigner,
An irritating, ruthless campaigner for veterans’ rights.
I love Plymouth.
But above that I’m a patriot.
And the truth is, the truth is, we stand at a cross-roads,
And I want us to focus on what lies ahead.
Because out there is a Country that is yearning to be won over.
That really does not want to vote and have a Labour Government.
But they want a change that works better for them.
Everyone wants change after 13 years – just ask my wife.
Because life is really difficult out there at the moment, really tough in cities like mine.
We’ve done a lot to support people – you cannot argue with that.
Paying half of the average household energy bill,
Freezing fuel duty,
And benefit’s rising in-line with inflation to look after our poorest through these storms.
But for too many people, it doesn’t feel like that.
And we haven’t got it always right. And we all know that.
But change is afoot and I would not be here today if it that did not mean something.
You can feel the change. You can feel it this week.
Long term decisions for a brighter future – it actually means something.
Take my personal crusade on Veterans.
I joined this Party because like many ordinary Britons today, I saw it as the Party of the Nation.
Moderate, patriotic, committed and values-driven.
And I believed that if I could show the values that were missing in the care of my generation of Veterans of Afghanistan, this Party would close that gap.
Because it was a values thing, a values thing – how we look after those who have served.
Those who instead of shouting loudest about their country outside another yet Party conference, actually crossed the threshold and were prepared to sacrifice body and mind for our way of life.
For our Country, for our values.
And in the last thirty years, we have seen politicians repeatedly failing to take the long-term choices for our veterans.
But this PM has been different from the start. I would not be here if he wasn’t.
He made a conscious decision straight away,
that we were going to follow in the footsteps of our American, Australian, Canadian and other peer nation allies, and change our structure of Government to better look after our Veterans.
He decided that he would have a veterans minister in his Cabinet for the first time,
That he would constitute the Office for Veterans Affairs properly,
And that we would finally close the gap between what we say about our veterans – including from this very conference stage,
and how it actually feels to be a veteran in the United Kingdom today.
Because the truth is, that Veterans’ care in the United Kingdom has been transformed.
Single dedicated pathways for physical and mental healthcare in our NHS – backed up by millions of pounds of long-term funding.
From specific programmes reaching vulnerable veterans in the criminal justice system, to a compassionate but aggressive pathway to end the stain of veterans’ homelessness in the United Kingdom this year.
Many governments around the world have tried that,
But we are actually going to end rough sleeping because of a lack of provision in our Veterans, by this Christmas, under a Conservative government.
And finally, that totemic scourge on the lives of our extraordinary people who served in Northern Ireland has been removed.
The hounding of these special people who stood against terror and violence in Northern Ireland on our behalf was appalling and a stain on our Nation.
Not just the veterans’ community, but the Nation as a whole.
The sight of these men being arrested in their eighties, dragged back to Belfast, hounded literally to death; was the totemic symptom of a nation’s moral ambivalence to those who served.
To end that was about hard choices. It was about principles; it was about honesty about what could be achieved in that space. It talked about who we are as a party, who the Prime Minister is as a man – his character, what he believes in.
It was about values.
With the Northern Ireland Legacy Act we have now achieved that change.
I pay tribute to Chris and the team at the NIO.
But mostly I pay tribute to the unstinting bravery, patriotism and courage of that generation of Veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
I know how you have not always felt it, but your sacrifices brought the peace we have today in the United Kingdom, and we are unequivocal in our admiration and total respect for your service, and I hope that you can now begin to feel that for yourselves as well.
I stand before you as perhaps the one-time fiercest critic in this space,
But acknowledging we have further to go, but honestly tell you Veterans’ care has never been better because of a Conservative Government.
These are things a Conservative Government can do. Long-term decisions for a brighter future.
Labour? They don’t even have a veterans’ minister in their shadow cabinet.
They’ve already said they will repeal the Northern Ireland Bill I’ve been talking about. They have no plans for an Office for Veterans’ Affairs.
Because to do this stuff you have to actually believe in something.
And if we know anything, it’s that Sir Keir Starmer believes in nothing at all.
He’ll bend to the highest bidder; the first bit of rough water he’ll bail out.
And contrast this with Rishi.
Voting for Brexit despite being told it would end his career;
Creating a world-leading furlough scheme throughout the pandemic,
Taking a leadership role in our approach to Net Zero with working families at the heart of it,
Because he’s in it to serve.
I know him. I know that central in his mind are the working families of this Nation.
Who drive this nation, who serve in the Armed Forces,
Who drive the economy, and frankly deserve better than they’ve had from Westminster.
And the British people deserve that. They deserve that leadership. We must not consign them to years of a feeble Labour Government they don’t want and doesn’t believe in anything at all.
We must hang together in the months ahead – this is the vital piece.
We must hang together.
Now is the time for focus, a focus on our nation, on the mission above ourselves.
If we do that, I’m convinced we can get there.
Let’s get to it.