New twist in Johnny Mercer and Fred Thomas row

Former defence minister Ben Wallace has waded into the war of words that has erupted over whether Plymouth Labour candidate Fred Thomas served “in combat” while in the Royal Marines. Mr Wallace took to social media to back Conservative candidate Johnny Mercer, who has accused Mr Thomas of lying about his military record and called him “a real life Walter Mitty”.

Mr Mercer, an Army veteran who completed three tours during the war in Afghanistan, is now battling Mr Thomas to retain the Moor View seat for the Tories. He has questioned Mr Thomas’ service record after a story in the Guardian newspaper said the politician served “in combat missions” while in the forces.

Mr Wallace, a former MP and secretary of state for defence under three prime ministers, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that: “Being on operations or an operational tour is not necessarily the same as being in combat. Afghan veterans, like Johnny, know the difference too well. I did two operational tours in NI (Northern Ireland) but I was not ‘in combat.’”


He added in another post: “Some others in the Troubles were. I know exactly what the Labour candidate did in uniform and while he was on operations he was not himself in combat as he claimed in the Guardian article in August.”

The row began at a hustings in Glenholt last Thursday, with Mr Mercer saying his opponent was challenged on whether he had served “in combat” by a veteran. Mr Thomas quickly stressed he is a decorated ex-Royal Marine who served for seven years, rising to the rank of captain.

He said that due to the highly sensitive and recent nature of his role, he remains unable to discuss much of his service but said he had served in a “warzone”. The BBC has since reported a Labour source saying Mr Thomas had been misreported in the Guardian story.

Mr Thomas took to X to say: “Service should be above politics and my service as a Royal Marines commando is the privilege of a lifetime. No one should have to see first hand the horror that war inflicts on a society. I have, and I can tell you, having lived and served in a warzone, that the daily threat to life is nothing to brag about.

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

“I left the Royal Marines recently, and in my last unit I served on sensitive operations that I can’t talk about. But that should not be an opportunity for political point scoring.”

He added: “Labour respects service and our government would be a government of service. It would be my honour to serve Plymouth Moor View in Parliament like I served my nation before.”

Mr Mercer, veterans minister under the Tory government, wrote an email newsletter yesterday wrote: “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.”

Mr Mercer stressed the Guardian story and one from the Mirror which calls Mr Thomas a “war hero” are highlighted on the candidate’s website. He questioned why Mr Thomas did not correct or even ignore the stories and said he had promoted them.

Meanwhile, Mr Wallace is not the only high-profile person to become embroiled in the row. Labour leader Keir Starmer criticised Mr Mercer and said: “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.”

TV presenter Carol Vorderman posted on X that Mr Mercer was in “full meltdown” and defended Mr Thomas. She said: “Fred Thomas has NOT said the things Johnny Mercer is accusing him of saying. Nowhere is Fred Thomas quoted in articles saying these things because he hasn’t said them.”

And former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell urged Mr Mercer to “look up (former Labour chancellor) Denis Healey’s first rule of politics” which is “when you are in a hole stop digging”. He also posted on X that Mr Mercer was “plain wrong” and said: “A journalist wrote a profile which included a phrase you have used to misrepresent the service of a veteran.”

Political journalist Isabel Oakeshott posted on X in support of Mr Mercer, however.

Click here to join PlymouthLive on WhatsApp and we'll send breaking news and top stories directly to your phone. We also treat our community members to special offers, promotions, and adverts from us and our partners. If you don’t like our community, you can check out any time you like. If you’re curious, you can read our Privacy Notice.