Tory Johnny Mercer branded 'sad and desperate' as veterans and Keir Starmer back ex-forces rival

Keir Starmer has branded Tory Johnny Mercer “sad and desperate” over attacks on his Labour rival’s military service - as a raft of veterans rallied round to back ex-forces candidate Fred Thomas.

The veterans minister launched an extraordinary attack campaign against Mr Thomas, a former Royal Marine Captain. Mr Thomas is challenging Mr Mercer in the Plymouth Moor View constituency - a target seat for Labour which the Tory held with a 12,897 majority in 2019.

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. Mr Thomas served in the Marines for seven years, rising to the rank of captain.

Mr Thomas says 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 Starmer 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. 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."

tory johnny mercer branded 'sad and desperate' as veterans and keir starmer back ex-forces rival

Fred Thomas

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 said: “I know first hand some of the extremely sensitive operations our military serve on.

“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 has proudly served his country and has been applauded for his contribution."

Calvin Bailey, a former RAF commanding officer standing for Labour in Leyton and Wanstead, said: “As Veteran’s Minister Johnny Mercer should know better than this.

“Fred embodies the finest traditions of the Royal Marines and should be immensely proud of his career. As we approach Armed Forces Day, 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, called Mr Mercer's attacks "completely unjustified."

He said: "I have known Fred Thomas all his life, and I know he had a distinguished 7 year career in the Royal Marines, rising to Captain. 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.”

But Andrew Fox, a former paratrooper and defence and disinformation expert, said: "This is straight-up misinformation. Special Forces Support Group sit within Directorate Special Forces. Nobody is claiming they’re the SAS but they support them on many operations, including a company on very high readiness for counterterrorism call ups.

"They partner with the US 75th Ranger Regiment and share many of the same capabilities.

"SFSG operators are bound by the SF confidentiality contract, same as the SAS (so I can’t tell you more, as I’m bound by it too).

"Although to give you an idea of how punchy SFSG is, I commanded a platoon in my company that had 21 soldiers. Of those 21: one Victoria Cross, one Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, three Military Crosses, and five mentions in despatches. Just as I left, three badged with the SAS."

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