Leave.EU chiefs brand Parliament 'biggest source of fake news' in fiery clash with MPs
Top Brexit campaigner Arron Banks accused MPs of peddling "fake news" as he faced a stormy parliamentary grilling on his business affairs and meetings with Russian officials.
The insurance millionaire and founder of Leave.EU was back in the spotlight this weekend after The Sunday Times reported that he had held a series of previously undisclosed meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the UK in the run-up to the Brexit vote.
The paper also obtained emails which reportedly show that he was approached by Russian officials about taking part in a Siberian gold mining deal. Home Secretary Sajid Javid last night said those claims were being taken “very seriously" in Government.
But the Brexit bigwig came out fighting today in tense exchanges at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is currently holding an inquiry into misleading media coverage.
Mr Banks, appearing alongside Leave.EU communications chief Andy Wigmore, accused the committee of being biased against Brexit, and branded Parliament "the biggest source of fake news in the entire country".
He said: "Straight after this meeting you’ll be at lunch with some Guardian journalist quaffing a glass of Chablis and spinning it the way you want to spin it."
The pro-Brexit campaigner was quizzed on his firm’s contacts with controversial political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which imploded last month following revelations it had harvested data from millions of unwitting Facebook users.
A probe by the Electoral Commission last month slapped a £70,000 fine on Leave.EU over breaches of electoral law, but it found no evidence the group had made use of Cambridge Analytica beyond some initial scoping work. Leave.EU this morning lodged an appeal against the electoral watchdog’s fines.
Mr Banks dismissed whistleblowers from Cambridge Analytica as "not particularly credible”, and he said the company's claims had amounted to "a lot of sizzle, not a lot of substance", branding them "an ad agency that was just overplaying its hand".
He said Leave.EU had decided not to make use of the company’s services after it failed to become the officially designated Brexit campaign, losing out to rival Vote Leave.
Mr Banks also hit back at claims that data from his insurance businesses had been used by the Leave campaign, and dismissed repeated questions about his business affairs as "a complete non-story".
He fumed: "I’m frankly sick and tired of this. The reason I went into the referendum was because I have a different version of what the future of this country is.
"I respect your right to disagree with it. And I know that you’re all Remainers, I think… hands up. Yep, think so. You’ve got a vested interested in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign."
Asked whether he could guarantee that no money from his overseas business interests had been used to fund political campaigns, Mr Banks shot back: "I pay my taxes in South Gloucestershire and I pay a shed-load of tax - probably more than the entire committee put together, okay?
"I’m not going to be lectured about my business interests. I structure everything legally. If you don’t like the tax law pertaining to this country, get out there and change it."
Mr Banks did acknowledge that Leave.EU had run a “disruptive campaign”, and said the group “certainly weren’t above leading journalists up the country path” and “making fun of them”.
Mr Wigmore meanwhile described himself as an “agent provocateur” who made use of “a bit of boastfulness” - but the pair disputed the committee's definition of fake news.
“What’s fake news? Every politician, with great respect, uses the best placed position of a situation to try and create the best environment for someone to write about it," Mr Wigmore said. "If that’s fake news then that’s what we did."
Pressed on the latest claims aboiut Russian contact, Mr Wigmore categorically denied that Leave.EU had ever accepted money from Moscow, and said an initial meeting with the Russian ambassador had been set up at his own behest.
"We thought it would be nice to meet them, because [Arron’s] wife is from the Russian diaspora," he said.
Mr Wigmore, who serves as a diplomat for the Central American Island of Belize, said his meeting with Russian officials had been because the country "needed someone to buy its bananas".
"It wasn’t anything to do with the referendum," he added.