Key players from the Leave.EU campaign answer questions about Brexit and Russia. Follow the latest developments
Brendon O’Hara asks about “big data dolphins”, a company created by Banks in Mississippi to look at insurance fintech. “That is how the stuff comes about, creating a… let’s put it this way, Big Data Dolphins is our AI unit for use in the insurance industry.”
O’Hara: “So what is the relationship between BDD and Eldon?”
One last question from Watling: “Did you accept money from Russia?”
Wigmore: “No. Nyet.”
Banks and Wigmore describe how they ended up meeting Donald Trump on the night of the US election. Wigmore: “This young girl on the transition desk, she said you’re British, do you have the number of 10 Downing Street? So, with astonishment, I gave it to her, I said that’s what we’ve got. I said to her, what if someone wants to get in touch with you. She said here you go.
“I met lots of the diplomatic community I’ve known for a long time, they wanted to know, they’d seen the picture [of Wigmore and Banks with Trump], and they wanted to know how to get in touch. And when we went to see the Russian ambassador, he was surprised as well. He said do you have a number, I said I did, he disappeared for about 10 minutes, and then he came back and said thank you very much for that.
Watling: “I’d like to move on to big scary Russia. I get the point that if the Russian ambassador asks you round for a drink you go, but this relationship went on for quite some time. What were you hoping to get out of it?”
Banks: “A good lunch, and that’s what I got.”
Giles Watling: “Do you think that the breakup of the rest of the EU is in Britain’s best interest now?”
Banks: “My belief is that it is. There’s been a tumultuous movement across Britain, and America, where there’s this desire to change. When we talk about staying in the single market, it’s almost like being in prison with the door open and the prisoner’s afraid to leave their cell. There’s been 45 years of brainwashing, and it’s going to collapse in on itself.”
Collins asks about international collaboration between Eurosceptic movements. Wigmore says he went to visit “someone in France”, and Banks adds that, before the referendum, “there was some meetings with the Five Star Movement” in Italy.
But Banks says: “If there were a second referendum, I don’t think I’d be involved in it. Frankly, if I could go back on this one, I might not do that again.”
Banks describes the Leave.EU’s broad tactics: “We knew that the thing to do was focus on three or four issues … but I think where Andy’s over-egged the pudding was to say that there were data scientists.
“One of the big issues was not just targeting. The vote was won on getting the turnout of people who cared strongly about leave. Dominic Cummings will argue that Farage was toxic, and that might have been true in the Home counties, but taking him to places where he was drove turnout.
Stevens turns back to Eldon Insurance, Banks’s main business. “How successful was it?”
Banks, annoyed, corrects her: “Is. It is successful.” He lists the thousands of employees Eldon has around the world.
Stevens asks about the official Labour Leave campaign. “Did you have any relationship with them?”
Wigmore says that “some MPs fell out with the Vote Leave movement. [Kate] Hoey, she jumped ship … they still had Giselle Stuart and a couple of others. But these individuals were happy to work with us. Officially, they were still with the Vote Leave campaign.”
Jo Stevens asks more questions about data-sharing between insurance businesses and Leave.EU, which Banks “categorically denies”.
“By the way, no one’s produced one shred of evidence that this happened. If we go to that very question, there was a big article by Carole Cadwalladr …” Wigmore notes that the Observer journalist is in the audience, and both men turn to say hi.
Lucas: “Did you believe what you were saying?”
Banks: “Of course. You go back to Trump, to Brexit, the problem is we had open-door mass migration. My belief is we should have had moderated normal immigration, of 60,000, 70,000 a year. But no parties cared: Labour didn’t care because it meant more voters for them, and the Tories didn’t care because it meant cheap labour.
Lucas: “What I want to know is: in what way were you using social media? There are two things really, there’s the creative aspect, the content, that you’ve touched on, but there’s also the data.”
Wigmore: “There’s a simplicity to this, let me give you a bit of colour … The knowledge of marketing, the knowledge of social media, were quite mature.
Lucas: “You said you wanted to bring the skills of the insurance industry to the campaign. How did you do that?”
Banks: “You’ve got two parts of the referendum, you’ve got the short period, and then you’ve got the run-up, before the spending limits kick in, when it’s open season. Within our office, we had an office set up for Leave.EU, which was a call centre. As part of that what we had was a creative department that basically created Facebook tiles and Twitter.
Lucas: “Are you familiar with Aggregate IQ?”
Lucas turns back to Cambridge Analytica: “Can you explain the work it did for UKIP?”
Banks: “I can. I did earlier.”
Lucas: “What do you think first attracted the Russian embassy to Arron Banks, the biggest political donor in UK history? Do you think it was the fact that you were involved in the Brexit campaign?”
Wigmore answers: “I’ll tell you why, because I asked to meet them. We thought it would be nice to meet them, because [Arron’s] wife is from the Russian diaspora.”
Banks, Wigmore and Labour’s Ian Lucas have a small shouting match, as Lucas attempts to ask about an investigation into Banks’ insurance companies, and Banks says he will not answer it.
Wigmore jumps in to argue that the questions have no relevance, before Banks angrily answers: “I have not been trading insolvently for three years, because the regulator would not allow that to happen. How on earth can an insurance company trade insolvently for three years?
“I’m frankly sick and tired of this,” Banks says. “You’ve got a vested interest in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign. Look, you’ve not called any witnesses from the remain campaign to hammer them. If Mr [George] Osborne, editor of the Evening Standard, isn’t going to any football matches with Putin’s number one man, he’s certainly working for Putin’s second man.
“The guy leading the remain campaign is working for a Putin oligarch in London. If you can’t see double standards, I don’t think that’s fair.”
“I like to think I’m an evil genius with a white cap who controls all of democracy, but clearly that’s not true,” Banks says with a grin, before getting more frustrated:
“By the way, you keep mentioning different names. This is a wonderful piece of Guardian’s fake news. What they’ve done is go through the documents at Companies House, and Companies House frequently makes mistakes. When you say ‘different names’, it’s my name, so I can’t see where it comes from. It just says Arron Banks, sometimes misspelled with two As, or in some cases it uses my middle name.
Banks: “The Guardian wrote an article saying that we had income of £19m and expenses of £21m … actually, that’s the payroll. It’s a sort of services company that does administration. When Better for the Country [the company that ran the Leave.EU campaign] was lent money, I lent money but it was Rock Services that delivered it. We don’t approve of the Electoral Commission’s interpretation of this, so we’re straying into territory that [is sub judice].
“I will cover it, although obviously our appeal has been lodged today. Effectively, the loan agreement was between BFTC and myself. Rock Services is the company that just delivered the cash, it’s a services company. I’m a UK taxpayer, I made the loan out of my own funds.
Rebecca Pow starts trying to drill down on the corporate structure of Banks’s portfolio.
Banks: “If you ask me to describe every company and how it interacts with every other company, I might not be able to do that.”
Matheson prompts some dissent between Wigmore and Banks, asking about an earlier quote from Wigmore that he had “actuaries” working on the Leave.EU campaign. Banks now says that there was some “conflation”, and that those actuaries didn’t actually work on the campaign. Wigmore starts to describe the sort of work actuaries could do, and where they may come from, before Banks cuts him off to again say there were no actuaries working on the campaign.
“Winning an election isn’t about facts, it’s about emotion,” Wigmore says. The pair are hammering home part of their defence, here, which seems to be that a substantial chunk of what they previously said was exaggeration designed to raise emotions and create talking points during the referendum.
Chris Matheson asks if any information was shared with Cambridge Analytica. Banks says Ukip handed over some data for a “scoping exercise”, which left them unsatisfied, so they didn’t pay the invoice – and neither did he.
“I never had a role in Ukip,” he adds. “We wanted to professionalise the party, which some of them took exception to. We talked strategy with Nigel [Farage] all the time, but that’s what politicians do.”
Collins asks Banks about his and Wigmore’s very public dispute with Alexander Nix back in March, when the CA CEO denied ever working with Leave.EU and the Leave.EU team “took considerable exception to that”.
Banks says now that “one of the issues I had was the verbal offer they made that ‘if you pay us $1m up front, we’ll raise $5m’. That’s when it clicked that he was a bit of a fraud … this was an ad agency that was just overplaying its hand. That’s why I felt a bit angry with him.”
Banks explains that he attended the meeting with Cambridge Analytica “wearing lots of hats”. He says: “The three things that were of interest to me were, obviously the referendum campaign, my insurance business … and thirdly with the Ukip hat on, could it be a useful messaging tool for Ukip. There’s no conflict there.”
“With us sitting around the committee, there’s a lot of hindsight here. The fact of the matter is that we’ve got to be careful in examining all of this that we don’t go from ‘we examined the possibility’ to ‘it happened’. It’s a bit like the gold mine stuff, it’s a bit like the Guardian stuff: just because there’s a proposal, doesn’t mean there’s any wrongdoing.” (Banks here is referring to his meeting with Russian officials that led to the proposition that he invest in a Russian gold mine, reported in the Observer this weekend.)
Collins turns to Aggregate IQ, trying to disentangle the relationship between them and CA. Banks doesn’t offer much, but does return to why they rejected CA: “I think, as we saw in the Channel 4 exposé, [Nix] made a lot of claims about what his company can do … I got the definite feeling that he was just an ad agency.”
Wigmore interjects: “This claim that we can just hypnotise people is rubbish.”
Banks: “I think we won the referendum because there were two campaigns. Vote Leave was appealing to the soft Tories, while we were appealing to the Labour voters for whom migration is a huge issue.”
Upon meeting with Cambridge Analytica, Banks says, “it became clear that there was a lot of sizzle but not much substance”.
Wigmore adds: “When you market an insurance company … it’s marketing. You’re talking about pay-per-click, Google ads. All we did was apply that knowledge in marketing in insurance to politics, because it’s what we knew … here, we believed CA were perceived as one of the best political campaigning companies. The truth is, our marketing people actually knew more than they did.”
Collins opens with questions about Leave.EU’s connections with Steve Bannon (Banks met him), Robert Mercer (Banks didn’t meet him) and Cambridge Analytica: “It was proposed that they were experts in data analytics, and they made a pitch to us. [The Electoral Commission’s] report shows there is no evidence that we went ahead with the pitch.”
Collins prefaces a question with “Dominic Cummings wrote in his blog yesterday”, prompting an interjection from Banks: “I don’t think you can trust everything Dominic Cummings writes. I think he suggested I should be thrown down a mineshaft … it’s fairly on the record that we despise Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliot, and other people who tried to turn [the leave campaign] into a wing of the Tory party.
We’re off, a few minutes late. Damian Collins welcomes Banks and Wigmore, noting “for the record” that the two have freely agreed to come and give evidence, without a summons.
He also mentions that the pair have lodged a complaint with the Electoral Commission about their investigation, and that he won’t be asking about that issue, since it is sub judice.
Hello, and welcome to the Guardian’s live blog of today’s digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee hearing. What once began as an inquiry into fake news seems to have metamorphosed into the main investigative body the country has for asking tough questions about digital electioneering.
Being grilled by Damian Collins and colleagues today are Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, erstwhile of Leave.EU.