People's Vote 1 November 2018 | 16:22

How bad were the bad boys of Brexit?

01 November 2018 16:22

Today’s disclosure that the National Crime Agency is investigating Arron Banks and the Leave.EU campaign is a hugely significant moment in the unravelling of the 2016 EU referendum. Notorious for his knockabout memoir, The Bad Boys of Brexit, Banks – a mining and insurance tycoon – has been one of the most outspoken champions of Britain’s departure from the EU. But the legitimacy of the entire exit process is now in serious doubt.

The key allegation – that money given to the campaign came from ‘impermissible sources’ – is very serious indeed and follows a preliminary examination of the evidence by the Electoral Commission. Its findings are troubling, to say the least: for the NCA to be drawn into the scrutiny of an electoral process is highly unusual, and scarcely a proud day for British democracy.

According to the commission’s legal chief, Bob Posner:

We have reasonable grounds to suspect money given to Better for the Country [which ran Leave.EU] came from impermissible sources and that Mr Banks and [Liz] Bilney, the responsible person for Leave.EU, knowingly concealed the true circumstances under which this money was provided. This is significant because at least £2.9m of this money was used to fund referendum spending and donations during the regulated period of the EU referendum. Our investigation has unveiled evidence that suggests criminal offences have been committed which fall beyond the remit of the Commission.

It should be emphasised that Mr Banks categorically denies all wrongdoing. But it is also worth quoting at length the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee’s interim report into fake news which had this to say about the businessman’s conduct during the 2016 campaign:

From the emails that we have seen, it is evident that Arron Banks had many meetings with Russian officials, including the Russian Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, between 2015 and 2017. The meetings involved discussions about business deals involving Alrosa, the Russian diamond monopoly, the purchase of gold mines, funded by Sberbank, the Russian-state bank, and the transferring of confidential documents to Russian officials. Mr. Banks seemed to want to hide the extent of his contacts with Russia, while his spokesman Andy Wigmore’s statements have been unreliable – by his own admission – and cannot be taken at face value. Mr Wigmore is a self-confessed liar and, as a result, little significance can be attached to anything that he says. It is unclear whether Mr. Banks profited from business deals arising from meetings arranged by Russian officials. We understand that the National Crime Agency (NCA) is investigating these matters. We believe that they should be given full access to any relevant information that will aid their inquiry…

Arron Banks is believed to have donated £8.4m to the Leave campaign, the largest political donation in British politics, but it is unclear from where he obtained that amount of money. He failed to satisfy us that his own donations had, in fact, come from sources within the UK. At the same time, we have evidence of Mr. Banks’ discussions with Russian embassy contacts, including the Russian ambassador, over potential gold and diamond deals, and the passing of confidential information by Mr Banks.

So where does this leave our departure from the EU? The Labour MP, David Lammy, has already called for the Brexit process to be halted. Others will surely follow his lead. Their anxieties would carry less weight were it not for the narrowness of Leave’s victory in 2016: 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent. In the most important decision taken by this country since the Second World War, the margin of victory was small: so little things meant a lot.

The allegations under investigation are anything but little, and justice must now take its course. But at DRUGSTORE CULTURE we believe that the case for a People’s Vote has become close to unanswerable.