On the Frontline of Exposing the Truth About Russia and Brexit
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“As I told my friend Boris Johnson, it’s you and I that are always being blamed for this,” the Russian Ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, said as he turned to me and smiled. It was a mischievous answer to my question on whether Russia had been involved in campaigning for Brexit.
The charming and sharp-suited senior Russian diplomat had just given quite a speech at the Oxford Union. It was May 2018 and he had been invited to promote the upcoming FIFA World Cup. Instead, he used his perch to deny Russia’s involvement in the ills of the world, issuing denial after denial.
No, Russia was not involved in the war in Ukraine. Nor had it interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. He repeated conspiracy theories about the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury and said he “couldn’t know” whether the head of the Chechen republic Ramzan Kadyrov was right about there being no gay people in that part of Russia.
I had collared him for a short interview. “Tell me, why would Russia want to cause such a mess?” he asked me with an expression of bafflement on his face.
He could not have known then, but I had a particularly good answer to that question. For I possessed evidence that Yakovenko may have been personally involved in what could have been one of the biggest boons for Russian foreign policy of all time.
Having spent the past months in bunkers and trenches watching Putin’s armed forces trying to annihilate Ukraine, I thought about the Russian Ambassador’s waspish charm – and its incredibly ominous undertones.
Bad Boys of Brexit
I had worked with journalist Isabel Oakeshott as a researcher on The Bad Boys of Brexit, the book she had ghost-written for Arron Banks – an outspoken businessman and donor to the far-right UK Independence Party, which had pushed David Cameron into calling a referendum on the EU. Banks had given around £8 million to fund Nigel Farage and his campaign for Britain to quit Europe. Being a Brexit supporter, I had little problem with this at the time.
In the book, Banks described his campaign to take on the British establishment with a ragtag team of fringe politicians and social media whizzes. With money from his insurance companies, combined with some pluck, gusto and well-placed Twitter trolling, Banks credited himself for pulling off one of the biggest upsets in British political history.
It was a tale that would take him to the top of Trump Tower, where he and his team were photographed next to a grinning President-Elect Donald Trump. Banks would later claim a little credit for this other great electoral shock.
But in the year after the book was published, Banks had come under serious scrutiny from both journalists and regulatory agencies around the source of his funding.
Reports – which Banks contested – suggested that his businesses were losing money and he could not have afforded his donations. Oakeshott and I had heard from a security services source that spooks were probing whether Banks had serious business interests in Russia and if this was connected to his Brexit largesse.
In late 2017, I was sitting with my family in Australia when I got a call from Oakeshott. Could I check the records we retained from our time working on the Bad Boys of Brexit and find if there was any truth to the allegations? I agreed. What I found deeply concerned both of us.
The documents revealed many undisclosed meetings between Banks’ Leave.EU campaign team and officials based in the Russian Embassy in London. Rather than the ‘single boozy lunch’ the group had claimed in our book, it had held around a dozen meetings.
Several of these were with a Russian spook they described as “the KGB’s man in London”. They included a series of lunches with the Russian Ambassador, who had offered Banks and his business associates significant investments in Russian state-controlled gold and diamond firms. They had also met to discuss the Brexit campaign and frequently traded messages of friendship and mutual support. One example was an email sent during a public dispute between Russia and the UK over the Syrian refugee crisis. “Suggest we send a note of support to the Russian Ambassador,” Banks wrote.
Isabel and I had already become uncomfortable with his attacks on journalists investigating him. He had shared a meme depicting Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr being beaten in a mock-up of a scene from the comedy film Airplane. He said she “wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia!”. Other emails detailed his plans to hire private investigators to dig up dirt on the BBC Newsnight team investigating his finances. This was “personal stuff, things like girlfriends, if he’s in debt”.
Nothing we uncovered proved any illegality. Putting out false press statements or ‘leading journalists up the garden path’ is not a crime. Nor is meeting representatives of foreign governments or considering investment proposals. Banks was a businessman, after all, with significant legitimate investments in commodities including diamonds.
But it was clear that the Russians were trying to cultivate important UK political figures to increase their influence.
The announcement of Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election showed how high the stakes were – especially as I was aware how intricately connected the two transatlantic campaigns of Brexit and Trump were.
Other documents showed Banks and Wigmore were offered a meeting with both Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, and that a Trump foreign policy advisor had asked them for an introduction to members from the German far-right AfD party.
The team behind the book drafted a public statement, saying that Oakeshott was concerned that Banks could be working as an “agent of influence for the Russian state” and that she “cannot stand by while Banks publicly lies about his connections” to hostile foreign powers. Unfortunately, she did.
Oakeshott, and her publisher Michael Ashcroft, decided to instead hold the material for an upcoming book about UK defence. I accepted this, but was never that comfortable with it. As time went on, revelations about Cambridge Analytica and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal increased my concerns that this material needed to come out.
I began speaking with journalists from other organisations about the documents, including Byline Times’ co-founder, Peter Jukes. He shared a draft with the Observer, which published it and all hell broke loose. The story was on the front pages of newspapers, the lead item on CNN and the UK Government called for an investigation into Banks’ finances. Senior opposition politicians were claiming that Brexit needed to be stopped until these allegations could be investigated.
A few months later, the National Crime Agency would announce a criminal probe into Banks, based on reasonable suspicion that he “was not the true source of his funding for the Leave.EU campaign”. Further investigations would show that one of Banks’ business partners had filed court documents claiming that the money he had raised from Russians to expand his diamond mines in a South Africa business had been diverted to fund Banks’ Leave EU referendum campaign.
It seemed like the scoop of the century – the smoking gun connecting Trump, Brexit and Russia.
A Drink with Mr Banks
The NCA closed its investigation with no charges. Boris Johnson suppressed a report by a parliamentary committee into Russian interference ahead of the 2019 General Election, which he won by claiming to ‘Get Brexit Done’. On 31 January 2020, the UK officially left the EU.
Shortly afterwards, the pandemic struck and – by an odd twist of fate – Arron Banks and I both ended up being stuck in Auckland. I asked if he would be willing to meet. To my surprise, he agreed.
Sitting in a small restaurant in the quiet suburb of Mt Eden, he looked a picture of health. Trim, well-dressed and beaming with energy. The restless politico was keeping himself busy with projects in the Antipodes and said he had just lunched with the populist New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. He toasted me with his glass of pinot noir. It was his fourth or so bottle of wine by about 2pm.
“A few games of squash, a couple of glasses of wine, and I feel the best I have in years,” he said. “After what we went through, I needed a break!” Banks explained that, after the publication of his correspondence with the Russian Embassy in London, a Sunday Times reporter had called to tell him “I can’t believe it, we’ve never, in all my time at the paper, devoted the first six whole pages to a single report”.
He said “we were on the front page of The New York Times, the Washington Post” and “we had who knows how many hit pieces on us from Newsnight and Channel 4”. He explained how he had suffered heavily at the hand of the ‘fake news’ press; a slight smirk betraying how he somewhat enjoyed the notoriety.
We had met just once before, at an election night party on the eve of Trump’s victory. Held at London’s exclusive Devonshire Club, I had listened to Banks’ close associate and press guru Andy Wigmore explain just how deep those transatlantic connections went.
He reckoned Trump could pull off a similar upset to Brexit. Leave.EU, he explained, had assisted the Trump campaign to design a strategy for targeting white working-class voters in the ‘rust belt’ states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. This, he told me, was based on data and experience derived from Nigel Farage’s bus tour around similarly deprived communities in the north of England.
Banks said something similar in an email to a friend that December – “we have been in the US helping the Trump campaign for the last few months”. He also boasted “close relationships with three of the most senior figures in the incoming administration” – Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions.
It appeared his connections were taken seriously by figures in the UK. Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former advisor and advocate for ‘positive populism’, reached out to Banks to request a mobile number for Bannon. Wigmore even passed his contacts in the Russian Embassy a telephone number for the Trump transition team.
I asked Banks if this account was accurate. “Yes,” he said, before backtracking and claiming that Wigmore had slightly oversold it. “What we did do was help Trump deliver his message better,” he told me. “Before we got there, he was reading these dull, pre-written speeches. Nigel got him to ditch the teleprompter, improvise more and liven things up.”
Then, as the talk flowed, he let slip the thing that surprised me most. “You know the lads from the National Crime Agency – like most of the police – are very working-class,” he said. “They made it clear to me they were backers of Brexit.” I could not know exactly what he meant by this, but I had long harboured my own suspicions that the NCA’s investigation had lacked rigour.
Failures to Investigate
The National Crime Agency’s headquarters is a series of squat, grey, concrete rectangles built across a small courtyard in south London. Investigators working on ‘Operation Centile’, as the probe was known, had requested an interview with me and I had agreed to cooperate. In a cold, clammy basement two stories below ground, I walked them through the disturbing connections I had found.
“We are very interested in all of this,” one of the officers told me gravely. Their subsequent actions would not bear this out.
They gave me a cable to transfer my records from my laptop to one of their computers. The transfer completed and I left.
Around a week later, they called again. The transfer had failed midway and corrupted the files and they wanted me to upload the material to a cloud-based system and give them a link to open it. I did so and then they changed their minds again, saying they were worried about the chain of custody of the evidence if they opened the link. They wanted me to transfer all the material to a hard drive, travel to the Peruvian capital of Lima (I’d been travelling in South America at the time) and hand this drive into the British Embassy in the city. Despairing, I made it clear if they wanted, they could come and get it.
They never contacted me again.
When the NCA released a letter outlining its findings, there was no mention of any investigation of Banks’ links to the Russian state. The Electoral Commission, which had initially referred the case to London’s top cops, took the extraordinary step of publicly criticising the judgment for “allowing foreign money into British elections”.
The NCA claimed it had interviewed Banks and examined material from his business records in the Isle of Man, where his companies are based. The Isle of Man is regarded as a tax haven and has some of the world’s most secretive banking laws. I spoke with a senior source working for its financial regulatory agency who told me that its financial crime team had spent significant time preparing to deal with a request from the NCA to probe Banks’ dealings. This request had never arrived and the NCA did not probe Banks’ confidential financial records, according to this source.
There were hints that people at the agency knew more than it had let on.
Shortly before it publicly cleared Banks, a security source told the Daily Mail that “Cabinet ministers joining Boris Johnson’s Government in July were warned by security officials to steer clear of insurance tycoon Banks and his associates… they were gently told they risked huge embarrassment if charges are brought and they were still meeting”. The article went on to say that the NCA investigation was “still live” and that “sources say its scope has widened”. Another report claimed that former Prime Minister Theresa May had blocked a security services probe into Banks’ activities as it had been too politically sensitive.
As Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference in the UK showed, the Government and the security services had made no effort to investigate potential Russian influence on the Brexit vote.
In Oxford in 2018, before he left, Alexander Yakovenko motioned for me to come closer. “Do you want to know the secret about Brexit?” he whispered.
After an ominous pause, he cracked a smirk and exclaimed: “We really just don’t care!” He broke into a peal of laughter and turned to the group of students huddled around. “That’s all from me today!” he said, giving a wave. A moment later, he was whisked away.
The same week I met Yakovenko, I also attended a talk at the Institute for Statecraft, a think tank in central London but supposedly a haunt for members of the intelligence community. Brexit inevitably came up.
An audience member asked: “Will the British public change their minds on Brexit, once it is publicly revealed how deeply the Russians could have been involved?” After everything I have done to expose the links, I know the answer – no, it didn’t change a thing.
Banks sued Carole Cadwalladr in a court case that dragged on for nearly three years when she said he had lied about his connections with the Russian Government.
The judge in the case concluded that “the four meetings… were probably not the full extent of Mr Banks’ meetings with Russian officials” and that the reason Banks gave for claiming and then denying his trip to Moscow “was not credible”.
Around the same time this judgment was handed down, I was standing beside a platoon of Ukrainian soldiers watching Russian rockets smash into the fields just a few hundred metres in front of us. Melodic birdsong mixed with the whistle and crash of the shells landing all around us. I was in Donetsk on the frontline of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Though the truth behind the Russian state’s involvement in Brexit seems murkier than ever, we now know the depths of evil that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has been aiming towards. No longer is the Kremlin content with meddling in democratic elections – it is now engaged in a full-on war intended to annihilate its democratic and sovereign neighbour.
As I hear the rumble of artillery outside my windows, I finally see what was lurking behind the ambassador’s mask of jovial charm. And that’s the story of my whole ‘scoop of the century’: what I had thought were diamonds, turned out to be ashes.
Byline Times has repeatedly contacted Arron Banks on a variety of issues raised in this article, meeting with no response or one of curt dismissiveness