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The Veteran’s Vendetta: ‘Why Johnny Mercer’s Attacks on a Former Serviceman and Political Rival Are So Problematic’

Mercer has said it is the ‘long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment on the activities of our Special Forces’ – but expects his political rival, Fred Thomas, to deviate from it

Johnny Mercer, Minister of State for Veterans' Affairs leaves the Cabinet Office after a meeting in May 2024. Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy
Johnny Mercer, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, leaves the Cabinet Office in May 2024. Photo: Eleventh Hour Photography/Alamy

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The Conservative Party’s handling of the much-anticipated death of the Conservative Party’s majority has spawned a wide array of emotions.  

For many, there has been a resignation, both emotional and – with 75 Conservative MPs choosing not to stand again on 4 July – actual.

For others, there has been a focus on what a much smaller Conservative Party might look like, and their corresponding places in it: the fight for the soul of the party by both those on its right and left, evidenced in the emerging ‘Suella Braverman versus Tom Tugendhat’ camps.

Then there are those with rage. In particular, there is the anger on display by Johnny Mercer, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

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I have outlined previously in these pages my reasons as to why anyone should be concerned about Mercer’s competence, and the way in which he has personified a broader right-wing shift in British politics that has prioritised military interests over human rights. Not least, I have argued, there is cause for concern about his controversial handling of the Overseas Operations Bill, and his frequent disregard for accountability and detail.

But this election has shown a new, furious face to the man.

In the heat of the campaign, Mercer, a former Army officer, accused his fellow veteran and Labour opponent, Fred Thomas, of lying about his military record during a hustings event in Plymouth.

Mercer claimed that Thomas had never served in combat missions, as reported by the Guardian last year. Mercer accused Thomas of “fraud”, of being a “Walter Mitty”, and of being “deeply offensive and deeply disrespectful”.

Mercer had previously accused Thomas of serving “five minutes in uniform”, when Thomas had, in fact, served seven years (compared to Mercer’s 10).

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The accusations were quickly condemned by Labour Leader Keir Starmer, who described Mercer as “sad and desperate” and criticised the Conservatives for putting party interests above the country.

Thomas, a former Royal Marine Captain, responded by stating that he was unable to discuss much of his service due to its sensitive nature. But, as commentator and broadcaster Carol Vorderman noted on X (formerly Twitter): “Fred Thomas has not said the things Johnny Mercer is accusing him of saying… He hasn’t said them.”

A letter was also published from the Commanding Officer of the UK Special Forces Support Group that noted that Thomas had led command “on operations overseas… in a range of hostile and challenging environments”. Given that in Afghanistan, where Thomas served, 223 British soldiers were killed from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – a death toll accounting for more than half (56.3%) of the combat deaths there – any service in Afghanistan would have come with tremendous risk.

The backlash against Mercer’s comments were swift.

Sam Kiley, a well-respected Sky News journalist, stated: “I can confirm that Fred Thomas has served overseas on active service in places I have myself also worked.”

Mike Tapp, a Labour candidate and former Intelligence Corps officer, said that Mercer’s attempts to push Thomas to break confidentiality rules on Special Services missions were inappropriate and disrespectful. “Service always comes before politics,” he said.

But the episode raises some important questions, not least about Mercer’s own behaviour.

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The first is that, in his attacks on his rival’s record, Mercer claimed that he knew of Thomas’ service career from his role as Veterans’ Affairs Minister. Former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also said that he knew “exactly what the Labour candidate did in uniform”. What is remarkable is that two former ministers are using privy and confidential information to attack a competitor. 

As Shashank Joshi, Defence Editor of The Economist, asked: “Is this a case of a minister using their office to acquire derogatory information on a political opponent?”

Perhaps, but it is not against the law to do so. According to the Electoral Commission, “the content of campaign material is not regulated by any UK body, other than a number of electoral offences associated with making false statements about the character of another candidate”.  

The second concern is that Mercer, expecting Thomas to reveal details of his own Special Forces Support operational experience, risks double standards.

Mercer was recently given a deadline to provide names to the Afghanistan Inquiry about alleged war crimes by British special forces – a move he has resisted on the grounds of protecting his sources. As Mercer himself has said in the House of Commons, it is the “long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment on the activities of our Special Forces.” Why, then, does he expect Thomas to break that silence?

The third concern relates to Mercer’s own character.

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For a man who claims that he doesn’t “talk about” his combat missions “for good reason”, and that “it’s not something you boast about”, he is constantly framing his own virtues against his having served. Even in his book, he praises himself as “one soldier… under fire”.

Mercer has arguably done more than any other person in the UK to transform the veteran in public culture. From protecting veterans from ‘unfounded prosecutions’ to claiming that he wants the UK to be the “best place in the world to be a veteran”, Mercer has always aimed towards gifting the veteran an exceptional, protected, status in public life.

Some argue that this is good, but it has also come back to bite the Conservatives. Witness the fall out of the Prime Minister leaving the 80th anniversary international D-Day commemorations early last month – which the BBC called “the biggest gaffe of the General Election campaign so far”, and led to Reform Leader Nigel Farage claiming – while sounding a dog-whistle – that Rishi Sunak did not understand “our culture”. 

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This was sadly predictable, as I have previously noted in these pages. The rise of the use of words such as ‘hero’ and ‘veteran’ in the Commons seems in step with a march of a certain Ur-fascism in political rhetoric.

The snake tends to eat itself, though.

Johnny Mercer turning on a fellow veteran for not being ‘enough’ of a veteran is symptomatic of how problematic the veneration has become. And how far it can lead to a rage-fuelled ugliness in political life.


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