Johnny Mercer branded 'sad and desperate' by Keir Starmer

Plymouth's Tory veterans minister Johnny Mercer has been branded "sad and desperate" by Keir Starmer after launching a series of attacks on a fellow veteran's service records.

Fred Thomas is challenging Mr Mercer for his Plymouth Moor View seat. The constituency has been a target seat for Labour which the Tory held with a 12,897 majority in 2019.

Recently Mr Mercer claimed - without providing evidence - that Mr Thomas had “lied” about serving in combat missions during his time in the marines - and was a “Walter Mitty” figure. A Walter Mitty is defined as "an ordinary often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs".

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Mr Thomas served in the Royal Marines for seven years, rising to the rank of captain. He said he can’t discuss much of his role in the armed forces because of its “sensitive” nature - and his deployment having ended relatively recently in 2022.

Mr Mercer's attacks on a fellow ex-serviceman backfired after not only opposition figures but other servicemen came out in support of Mr Thomas. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Mercer's tirade showed him as “sad and desperate”.

He told The Mirror : "I think this is sad desperation that the veterans minister is attacking another veteran who's got a proud record of service. It's desperate. It underlines everything I've thought for a long time, which is that this Conservative Party now is party first through and through and country second and, in my view, that is the wrong way round, is why we're in the mess we are in in this country."

He added: "My Labour Party will always put country first and party second. So it couldn't be a starker difference between us. But it's sad and desperate from Johnny Mercer."

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Mr Thomas said: "I am proud of having served my country for seven years, including overseas on operations. I remain unable to discuss much of my service, something which Johnny Mercer, as a former defence minister, is keenly aware of."

Mike Tapp, Labour’s candidate in Dover and Deal who served with the Intelligence Corps on three operational tours of duty sad there was a reason why Mr Thomas could not divulge the content of the "extremely sensitive" military operations he had been part of. He added: "As Veteran’s Minister, Johnny Mercer has gone too far this time in his attempts to push Fred to break strict confidentiality rules. Service always comes before politics."

Fred Thomas and Johnny Mercer
Fred Thomas and Johnny Mercer -Credit:submitted

Calvin Bailey, a former RAF commanding officer standing for Labour in Leyton and Wanstead, also defended Mr Thomas with a swipe at his Tory rival. He said: "Johnny should show some respect for a fellow service persons career. He will know better than anybody about the sensitivities surrounding Fred’s service and why it’s not appropriate for Fred to politicise it. Service is above politics and the country should be proud of Fred.”

Matthew Taylor, the former Lib Dem MP for Truro and St Austell, before it became it was split into the Truro and Falmouth and St Austell and Newquay constituencies in 2010, told the newspaper: "Mercer's comments about Fred Thomas are appalling and illustrate everything wrong with the Conservative Party - he knows well Fred can't give details of missions - and are utterly disreputable.

"It is obvious why Mercer faces defeat, he does not deserve support."

Mr Mercer has continued to make unfounded claims on Twitter, writing: “Nobody who serves in Special Forces Support Group claims they are Special Forces. Anyone who has served can say if they were or were not actually in combat - the ‘can’t discuss’ line has been used by Walter Mittys since time began.

“Not a single person has put their hand up today and said they fought alongside Fred. Must have been one of those one-man missions that happen all the time. He himself boasted of serving in combat missions. It is strange that he now cannot talk about it.”