Cameron backs ‘talented’ race row minister

The sacked Conservative shadow minister Patrick Mercer could return to the frontbenches if the Tories win the next election, David Cameron said today.

Mr Mercer is a “very talented MP” and could return as a minister in a Conservative government, Mr Cameron said.

The MP for Newark was sacked as shadow homeland security minister last month after he was criticised for appearing to excuse racism in the army.

It was not unusual to call someone a “black bastard”, Mr Mercer said, and akin to teasing someone for having ginger hair. He told a journalist some ethnic minority soldiers were “idle and useless” and cried racism as an excuse for poor performance.

Although initially dismissing Mr Mercer’s comments as a “private matter”, Mr Cameron was forced to sack his homeland security minister in the face of rising controversy.

“The comments made by Patrick Mercer are completely unacceptable and I regret that they were made,” the Tory leader said at the time.

Today Mr Cameron told a caller to a BBC Radio 5 phone in, “I think Patrick is a very talented MP.”

“I’m sure there is room for him in a future Conservative government,” he continued.

While Mr Cameron considers his plans for a future Conservative administration, the home secretary John Reid asked why Mr Mercer had not been replaced in his shadow government.

A new homeland security shadow minister has not been appointed after 50 days despite Mr Cameron pledging strong leadership in response to terrorism, Mr Reid said.

The home secretary continued: “The appointment of a homeland security minister is one of the few concrete announcements David Cameron has made. He has made this position the central plank in the Tory policy, arguing that it would ‘reassure’ the country that the Tories took the issue seriously.

“Leaving this supposedly key post vacant for so long raises questions as to just how seriously he does take it.”

Mr Cameron’s opposition to Labour’s anti-terror legislation further weakens his credibility on security, Mr Reid added.

In February 2007, Mr Cameron said domestic terrorism would be one of his first priorities if he “walked into Downing Street” tomorrow. The Conservative leader has called for a separate terrorism minister in the Cabinet.