Johnny Mercer: Why I called out my Labour rival

Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer has said his Labour rival 'could not stand up' claims about his time in combat

By any stretch, hustings are awkward affairs. Usually poorly attended, few ever change the minds of voters, as candidates stick to tedious lines cleared by local party HQs. But as the hustings in Plymouth on Thursday night descended into anarchy, I sat back to take a moment to take it all in.

Despite shaking my hand warmly when we first met, congratulating me for my work, confessing he and his mates had all bought my book going through Royal Marines Young Officer Training and that it was a “privilege to meet” me, my now Labour opponent was being heckled and berated in a way even I was becoming uncomfortable with.

“You’re a disgrace! You’re disgusting!” they shouted at him; it’s all on tape if you care to listen. But as I looked down the line past one woman shouting I saw an elderly gentleman, sitting quietly, but getting visibly distressed.

I recognised it straight away. The personal experience that makes moments like this particularly uncomfortable. The scars of combat service – killing and friends being killed, sacrificing their lives for the nation.

And I thought I’m used to this; I’m used to the circus of public life. But I saw in him what I felt inside. The sheer rage of someone unbelievably trying to pretend about their military service, in front of many of those for whom the shadows of combat in Kosovo, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan were impossible to escape.

And the switch flicked. I looked at the elderly gentleman; it was one of those moments when you decide who you are in it for. Like when I saw Dennis Hutchings in court in Belfast. Or Soldier A. Or Soldier C. Or any of the others I’ve stood up for.

What the Labour opponent had done was boast about serving on “combat missions” during his time in service in an interview with the Guardian. He has since promoted this article endlessly – it is the main thing on his website, along with another piece which claims in a big heading that he is a “War Hero”. He could have resiled from the claim at any time – corrected it or simply ignored it. But he didn’t. He promoted it; it’s what he wanted everyone to think.

Given the time period he served and the unit he was part of this was simply not a plausible claim. One of the advantages of having a small-ish UK military is that pretty much everyone knows someone who knows someone else. It was obviously not true.

‘It’s not something you boast about’

I wrote him a friendly note saying this was quite a claim of someone from his era, on the back of some of his peers enduring the hardest fighting in Afghanistan that the British Army had seen since Korea. I said it was likely to come up, and could he help me bat off awkward questions for him. He told me the Labour Party had told him he could not talk about it.
Again, I knew it was rubbish.

He got his comeuppance this week, and has now admitted the interview was “misreported” by the Guardian. Their fault not his. It was brutal to watch, and at times brutal to endure.

Most of us don’t talk about it for good reason. I once crossed a road in combat and a Taliban fighter opened up on me and a friend from 80 metres away with a heavy machine gun. My friend was shot in the face and died instantly; I was unscathed. Nothing but luck played the dealing hand.

I think about it regularly. Why him, not me? As I cradled his body going from warm to cold, I thought of his mum, and his plans for his life that he had sacrificed for the nation that would now never happen. It’s not something you boast about; it’s something you try not to think about. The guilt can be overwhelming at times; the imposter syndrome stays with you for life and hits you like a Tyson Fury right hook when you least expect it, like on my wedding day when I was in tears.

As the melee died down at the hustings I went over to speak to the elderly gentleman. He was on a ship which sank during the Falklands War. I can’t remember exactly what he said – my blood was up, but it was something like “I just can’t take this sort of stuff anymore Johnny”.

I don’t do this stuff for the media commentariat. Neither do I do it for the crowds. I do it for the quiet veterans – those abandoned by their nation in court in Belfast, those who quietly deal with the consequences of their experiences or are forced to watch their epic service (far greater than mine) cheapened by individuals who are happy to allow an impression of them to build what they know to be false, for personal gain. It is deeply offensive, and deeply disrespectful to those who do actually lose their lives in combat.

I’ve always been against criminalising the “bloating” or Walter Mitty types. I’ve seen them as a sad crowd who need help not punishing. This week has completely changed my view. It’s fraud, or whilst I’m still around – attempted fraud at best. I will do all I can to force a future government to do so.