Bannon, Brexit, Johnson & Cambridge AnalyticaThe Daughter of Time
Peter Jukes reports on more revelations about the transatlantic right-wing network, and why the Government is withholding key information on the former Prime Minister’s role
Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
Truth is the daughter of time. Though Boris Johnson has vociferously denied his extensive contacts with Cambridge Analytica co-founder and Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, a new book has produced evidence that, on this, as with many other matters, the former Prime Minister’s relationship with the truth is far from faithful.
In their new book, Johnson at 10: The Inside Story, serialised in The Times, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell quote unnamed officials describing how Boris Johnson struck up regular contact with Bannon after Donald Trump’s shock 2016 US presidential election victory.
At that time, Johnson was serving as Foreign Secretary under Theresa May but “behind No 10’s back”, Seldon and Newell reveal, “regular texts flowed”. “Johnson was reminded by officials Bannon had extensive contacts with the far right in Europe, but ‘it didn’t seem to concern him’.”
The far-right contacts are important, but the current serialised version of the book doesn’t include any mention of the other important dimension of Bannon’s work – Cambridge Analytica.
The data-led political campaign consultancy originally boasted that it played a key role in both the surprise EU Referendum result as well as Turmp’s victory. The firm was closed down in light of the revelations by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer that it hacked the profiles of more than 70 million Facebook users to harvest data to use in political psychometric profile campaigns.
Johnson had at least two documented meetings with the man who had co-founded Cambridge Analytica with Steve Bannon – Alexander Nix on 7 and 8 December 2016. Cambridge Analytica was also invited to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s conference centre at Wilton Park to discuss ‘Democracy in the Digital Age in 2017’.
When Byline Times submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for notes and minutes of those meetings, the FCO rejected it. After an internal review upheld that rejection, this newspaper filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. Earlier this year, it accepted the Government’s position that “disclosure of the withheld information” about those two meetings would “harm” UK relations with the US.
What information could these meetings hold that would harm our national interests or upset the ‘special relationship’?
Bannon, Johnson and the Populist Far Right
Johnson “hit it off particularly with Bannon”, according to the book. “Trump’s maverick strategist, who intrigued him… Johnson acknowledged that there was something distasteful about ‘the Trumpies’. But something beguiling and fascinating as well.”
That Bannon’s far-right agenda was disturbing to Foreign Office officials, but not to Boris Johnson himself is hardly news. When Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary in August 2018, Keir Mudie first revealed in the Mirror that he was close to Bannon and was starting to realise populism “in the way Bannon knows it is inherently appealing to the British public”.
Bannon made no secret of his support for Johnson’s bid to topple May telling the Mirror in 2018: “I believe moments come. It is like Donald Trump – people dismissed him. Now is the moment, if Boris Johnson looks at this.”
Johnson kicked off his campaign to topple May with a column in the Telegraph, deploying the kind of textbook Islamophobia which was the stock-in-trade of Bannon’s Breitbart publications, (and both the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns deployed in the messaging during the EU Referendum).
According to the former Spectator Editor Matthew D’Ancona, it was Bannon’s imprecation “to get off his knees and cause some mayhem” that led to the infamous comparison between a Muslim woman wearing the niqab and “a bank robber” and that they were going around “looking like letterboxes”.
This was later confirmed from the horse’s mouth. During filming for the documentary, The Brink, Bannon said he had “gone back and forth on text” about a “rallying call” in Johnson’s resignation speech.
Johnson’s team vehemently denied this at the time telling Cadwalladr that the notion that Bannon was advising the would-be prime minister was “preposterous to the point of conspiracy”. They said his only communication was “one text – an invitation to meet that Johnson declined”.
Meanwhile, D’Ancona was bombarded with calls by Johnson: “I stopped counting at 15 – though the calls continued.” These were followed by texts, he explained on Tortoise. The reason: “Boris Johnson was furious with me for writing about his contact with Steve Bannon.”
But the ideology was lying in plain sight. Johnson regularly channelled Bannon’s deep-state’ conspiracy theory rhetoric, a favourite theme on his Breitbart websites, before and after Trump’s election. As he began his insurrection against Theresa May in early 2019, Johnson warned that a failure to withdraw from the EU would lead people to conclude “there is a plot by the deep-state to frustrate Brexit”.
Of course, the allegation that Johnson was willing to deceive people about his far-right and Trumpist political connections in a bid to become prime minister is hardly new – but the volume of denials and aggression over this exceeds the normal ‘catch and kill’ technique.
Why was Johnson so worried about the Bannon connection? How could this harm the UK’s relationship with the US now?
Harming US and UK relations
Since the closure of Cambridge Analytica, after multiple indictments and a presidential pardon, Steve Bannon has become a far-right figure, promoting conspiracy theories about the ‘big steal’ of the 2020 US Presidential Election won by Joe Biden, and supporting the insurrectionists who rioted at the Capitol building on January 6 2021.
This could be one reason why the UK Government has refused to release the minutes of those meetings between Johnson and Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica.
The conservations with Trump’s campaign manager might not endear Johnson to Biden – not that there is much love lost there anyway, since the US President described Johnson as the “physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump.
Both Johnson and Trump are out of power and, it’s hard to imagine, given the damaging revelations already out there, that this could be a reason to refuse Byline Times’ FOI.
But Johnson and Trump are just the tip of a much bigger right-wing transatlantic movement. This newspaper has reported consistently on these links since its inception four years ago.
Bannon first set up Cambridge Analytica with Alexander Nix and the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer around a Young Britons Foundation conference at Churchill College, Cambridge in 2013. The Young Britons Foundation had multiple connections to the Young Americas Foundation (also funded by Mercer). Regularly attending the UK conferences were key players in the Brexit campaign that unfolded three years later and still raises troubling questions to this day.
Johnson was the most high-profile face of the official Vote Leave campaign, which employed various former Cambridge Analytica employees, and delivered most of its (often misleading) campaign promises through Facebook and other social media. To deliver these messages, Vote Leave spent most of its money with a Canadian spin-off from Cambridge Analytica, AIQ, using the joint Ripon database
Cambridge Analytica initially boasted it had swung the Brexit referendum, but began to retract these statements as the Vote Leave campaign spending came up under scrutiny. I obtained the £41,500 invoice from the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, which was to be paid to Bannon’s business account.
But is there something even darker being withheld from view?
Bannon, like Trump, is an admirer of Vladimir Putin, and there is ample evidence that both the Brexit and Trump campaigns were boosted by Russian state media and Evgeny Prigozhin’s troll farms (the subject of the Mueller indictments). Cambridge Analytica’s electoral data was handed to an alleged agent for Russian military intelligence, the GRU, during the 2016 presidential campaign. The GRU were at that time protecting and financing Prigozhin.
Truth is the daughter of time and, as Russian hybrid warfare against the West has since developed into an all-out military onslaught in Ukraine, the final piece of the Brexit, Trump, Russian conundrum may sooner rather than later fall into place.