Former Tory defence secretary joins Johnny Mercer's attack on Labour candidate's military service claims

23 June 2024, 21:23 | Updated: 23 June 2024, 23:09

Conservative former defence secretary Ben Wallace has joined veterans minister Johnny Mercer's attacks on his Labour electoral rival.

Mr Mercer, who is standing as the Tory candidate for the Plymouth Moor View constituency, had claimed his Labour opponent Fred Thomas was "bloating" his military service.

He made the claim after a hustings event at which both men appeared on Wednesday, which Mr Mercer has since said "descended into anarchy".

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Mr Mercer had questioned whether the Labour candidate had served in combat missions during his time as a Royal Marine, as The Guardian reported in 2023.

Mr Wallace tweeted to say he had watched "the Labour pile on" of Mr Mercer, adding: "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 [Northern Ireland] but I was not 'in combat.' 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."

Labour has said Mr Thomas is unable to discuss much of his role in the armed forces due to its "sensitive" nature.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also weighed in on the issue when asked about Mr Mercer's comments, saying: "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.

"And 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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John Healey, Labour's shadow defence secretary, said: "The Commanding Officer of the Special Forces Support Group wrote of Fred's integrity and his character. Those words will not have been penned lightly.

"Mr Mercer should do the right thing and withdraw his deeply disrespectful remarks."

Mr Mercer had outlined his concerns on X, 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."

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."

Other candidates standing in Plymouth Moor View are Shaun Hooper for Reform UK, Sarah Martin for the Liberal Democrats and Georgia Nelson for the Green Party.