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A year with Obama

The journey from college kid to presidential candidate was short. Yet it is the audacity of that cho

It was early October 2007 in Iowa, the drying stalks still stood in cornfields grown more precious in the age of ethanol, and far away, in the moneyed precincts of both coasts, Barack Obama's top donors were anxious. Despite having raised heaps of cash, he was trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the national polls with only three months to go before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus. For the worriers, it was getting late. But for Iowa voters, it was early enough that many barely knew what to make of this biracial rookie senator and still muffed his exotic name. In Waterloo, it had been "Hi, Senator Barack." Now, here at the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, it was "Hi, Obama," from a nervous Geri Punteney as she rose in the front row to ask her question.

But it wasn't a question, really. "I have a brother who's dying of cancer," she said, and as soon as it was out she had broken into sobs, and then apologies for her sobs, and more sobs. Obama stepped forward, as if knowing what was expected of him and yet slightly embarrassed by it. He took her hand with some consoling mumbles. Punteney, 50, collected herself enough to tell the rest: her 48-year-old brother was working as a truck driver despite having cancer, so as not to lose his insurance. She herself had stopped working at a riverboat casino to care for her mother, and so was forgoing needed dental surgery. "I don't think it's fair that my brother has to work when he's dying of cancer just to keep his insurance," she said.

And here Obama parted from his two main rivals in the race, Clinton and John Edwards, and from the only Democrat elected president in the past 30 years, Bill Clinton, and from the whole tradition of politics that had prevailed in his party for the past few decades as it tried to maintain its historic bond with the common man. He did not get angry. He did not wrap Punteney in a hug. Instead, he stood still and said in a level voice, "First of all, we're all praying for you." He then told her that he had lost his mother to cancer in her early fifties. And only then looking up at the crowd, he segued into a policy conclusion that was startling for its cool rationalism. Punteney's and her brother's plight, he said, was a sign of the problem in tying health insurance to work without real alternatives. It was wrong that the US was the only developed nation not to guarantee health coverage for its citizens, even as it spent more per person on health care than anyone else. "We don't spend it wisely and we don't spend it fairly," he said.

Moments later, Obama decided to bring up two minor campaign squalls. The day before, an Iowa television reporter had asked him why he was not wearing a flag pin on his lapel, and Obama had answered that he had worn a pin after September 11 2001 but stopped when the pins "became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security". Incipient outrage was already spreading online, and Obama wanted to revisit it - to drive the point further. "After a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic," he said. "My attitude is, I'm [less] concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel [than] what's in your heart." He moved to another internet favourite, his suggestion to some Iowa farmers a few months earlier that they consider growing speciality vegetables, such as rocket (Americans know it as "arugula"), instead of only subsidised crops such as corn and soybeans. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he had said, which had brought derisive reminders from the press that Iowa had no branches of that organic grocery chain. In Independence, Obama went back at it. He repeated his suggestion on speciality crops and mocked the response to his earlier comment. "They said, 'Oh, Obama's talking about arugula in Iowa. People in Iowa don't know what arugula is.'" He paused, and the scorn rose as he continued. "People in Iowa know what arugula is. They may not eat it but they know what it is."

I don’t know where he’s come from, but he speaks on a whole other level, and he transcends the politics of today . . . We’ve been waiting for a guy like this

A year to the 2008 election, on the first of my many tours covering Obama on the trail, it was all here. There was the inability, or reluctance, to capitalise fully on the woes of working-class Americans beaten down by deindustrialisation, globalisation and Republican governance – a characteristic that would become all the more consequential as the economy crumbled over the next year, providing a giant opening for the Democrats that Obama would not deign to exploit to its utmost until Wall Street’s collapse last month, when a surge of voter discontent swept him along

almost in spite of himself. And there was the conviction that flaps over trinkets and leafy vegetables had debased politics, and that voters would agree if he made the case – a conviction that would be challenged as those very two symbols took leading roles in the cultural resistance to him that would be capped by John McCain’s selection for his running mate of a conservative Alaska governor whose every feature seemed designed for contrast with Obama.

Together, these early clues pointed to an extraordinary fact about the 2008 election, nearly as extraordinary as the racial breakthrough it represented: Barack Obama was running not on a record of past achievement or on a concrete programme for the future, but instead on the simple promise of thoughtfulness - the notion that the leadership of the country should be entrusted not on the basis of résumé and platform, but on the prospect of applying to the nation's problems one man's singularly well-tempered intelligence.

Many of Obama's own supporters would miss this, would grow upset later as he moved from a perceived position on the left to the centre on several issues - voting for compromise legislation to permit federal wiretapping, for instance, or speaking out in favour of a Supreme Court decision that strongly endorsed the right to bear arms. Obama is betraying his politics, came the charge from the left. What does he really stand for? From the other side came: he's offering nothing new, it's all warmed-over liberalism. Overlooked was that his politics appeared a matter less of weighing left and right than of judging smart and less-smart, with nods to fairness and common sense tossed in the mix - a matter of hashing things out, hearing out the other side, seeing what worked. He found tiresome many of the usual ideological tussles, wanted to save the fight for the biggest issues - health care, taxes, global warming. His best, most invigorated moments on the trail would come when he was summoning his audience to step back and think, and showing he believed them capable of that, urging them to demand an end to the petty skirmishes distracting from the greater cause. And his true self-betrayals would come in concessions not to conservatism, but to point-scoring or glibness, in his truisms about energy independence, education reform and trade policy, or in his habit of misquoting rivals.

So, the candidate of hope was at bottom hoping that aptitude could trump experience, though his campaign would never put it that way. Instead, it gamely inflated his qualifications. His three years as a community organiser in Chicago were made out to have been a bounty of hard-won successes for the “families devastated when the steel mills closed down”, when his own memoir had defined that episode precisely by its instructive futility. The results of his eight years in the state legislature (concluded only four years prior!) were exaggerated to the point of casting the creation of a health-care task force as an important step on the way to universal coverage. His work in the US Senate on the noble but innocuous subject of nuclear non-proliferation was used as evidence of his ability to work across the aisle. And the campaign would make much of his policy plans, though on most counts, his proposals differed from Clinton’s only in the small print. This was something Obama himself once acknowledged with candour to a roomful of voters in Iowa City, saying that all the Democratic candidates were going to “set up [health-care] plans you can buy into it if you’re poor – if you can’t afford it we’re going to subsidise it, we’re going to emphasise prevention, blah blah blah” – the last three words amounting to as offhand an indictment of campaign plank-peddling as I had ever observed on the trail.

No, as much as Obama claimed that "this is not about me", of course it was. Not about what he had done or what his website said he would do, but about the man and the qualities he appeared to possess - eloquence, self-possession, charisma, decency, lucidity, sobriety, discipline, judiciousness, empathy, wit, verve, acumen, suppleness, equipoise, confidence, style. (Not to mention his grandfather's strong chin and an enviable cigarette-burnished baritone.) In a word, talent. Which meant that Obama was testing one of the deepest schisms in the country's character, the Jeffersonian conundrum. The same Founding Father who saw as America's unique strength its capacity to produce leaders of modest origins but profligate gifts had also set in motion the forces that, two centuries on, would work to undermine such men and women.

In 1813 Jefferson wrote to John Adams to declare that "there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society . . . May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?" As if anticipating the Bushes and Clintons, Jefferson had set against his natural aristocrat the nepotism of the "pseudo aristoi", a "traditionary reverence for certain families, which has rendered the offices of the government nearly hereditary in those families".

But it was Jefferson, too, who in his debates with Alexander Hamilton - first treasury secretary, Anglophile and advocate of a strong central government - had exalted the yeoman farmer and the honest earth he tilled, setting his inherent goodness against the corrupted hordes of the metropolis, which Jefferson slapped with the same epithet wielded to effect today: European. "Our governments will remain vir tuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural," he wrote to James Madison in 1787. "When [Americans] get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

For two centuries, this rural bias had manifested itself mainly in the woefully unrepresentative US Senate (where Wyoming has the same two votes as New York, despite having one-fortieth its population) and in campaign imagery (Lincoln's log cabin, Teddy Roosevelt's years in Dakota Territory). It would take Nixon and his heirs to distil Jeffersonian egalitarianism to its most potent form, a hardy sour mash of righteous resentment against "elites" that flourished to the point where a savant like Bill Clinton had to lard his brilliance with McDonald's photo ops, while George W Bush, a product of Andover and Yale, settled on a West Texas ranch and found little political cost in mangling his mother tongue like so much cleared brush. A country that demanded only the best - best digital camera, best heart surgeon, best college - had developed ambivalence about undisguised excellence in its highest office.

“I never heard of Obama. I don’t know where he came from. My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don’t remember that”

This was the asterisk in the American meritocracy that Obama was attempting to erase. And if America was divided, this was the great cleavage confronting him as the self-anointed unifier. To those inclined to recognise potential in the qualities he represented even in the absence of hard evidence of its having been realised, here was a leader unlike any the country had seen for quite a while. These voters thought they grasped at some level what the world was coming to, that it demanded effervescence over solidity, knowledge over dogma, nuance over vehemence, and that it no longer distributed rewards according to years of attendance at the company holiday party. It was the world of the Google boys setting up shop in their Silicon Valley garage, high-school basketball stars going straight to pro, and wars begun by men of deep experience but rigid minds. Many saw this, and were either themselves prospering on these new terms or, if not, had accepted them as the new reality and had decided that the kid with the big skills and short résumé was the one for the moment. "It's a miracle that [Obama's] come aboard. I don't know where he's come from, but it's communication on a whole other level, and it transcends the politics of today," Doug Summers, a screenwriter in Santa Fe, said to me. "It's old versus new. We've been waiting for a guy like this. Like I told my kids: this guy's going to change your lives."

Many others looked at this same new world and were flummoxed by it. To them, it was a betrayal of what they held dear - that time served counted for something, as did work that involved something other than talking or writing or computing. If the winnings were now being given out on the basis of talent and not rank, then why was it that kids of a certain class were riding the escalator faster than ever? For these voters, Obama offered ultimate proof that this new so-called meritocracy of the number-crunchers and keyboard-tappers was bankrupt. That this man who had "done nothing" should be considered for the most powerful office in the world on the basis of certain personal qualities was a bad joke, an affront and, yes, possibly a conspiracy. "I never heard of Obama. I don't know where he came from," said Kathy Zarzycki, a nurse and Clinton supporter in Ohio's industrial Mahoning Valley, a Democratic stronghold where Obama has struggled. "My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don't remember that."

On these terms would the lines be drawn. The divisions became quickly evident, so much so that one could have taken US census data and predicted most primary outcomes to within a few points. (Clinton's late rally was more than anything a matter of the schedule; the Rust Belt and Appalachian states where she was strong fell later in the order.) There were some exceptions. Geri Punteney, not an obvious demographic match for Obama, told me that day at the fairgrounds that his measured response to her plea had won her over. "You don't have to get outraged," she said. "He seems more down to earth, more mellow." The question was whether the millions of other Geri Punteneys, those who had not seen the thoughtfulness gambit up close, would feel the same way.

The basic biography is by now familiar to most. Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961 in Hawaii to an 18-year-old white woman with middle-class Kansas roots and a 25-year-old Kenyan exchange student who married her but left two years later to attend Harvard. Moved with his mother, an idealistic anthropologist, to Indonesia between the ages of six and ten to live with her new husband. Returned to Hawaii to be raised primarily by his grandparents. College in Los Angeles and New York, then the organising stint in Chicago, law school at Harvard, and a return to Chicago, where he ran for state senate in 1996. Eight years in the legislature wrapped around a failed run for the US House, then the race for US Senate, blessed by luck when two different opponents were felled by tawdry divorce scandals, and capped by The Big Speech at John Kerry’s 2004 convention in Boston, which got all the speculation started.

Missing from the standard chronology is how, or when, it happened - how a late adolescent adrift in a mild pot habit, misguided fantasies of basketball greatness and steadily accreting racial confusion grew, within a decade, into the outstanding law student many of his classmates predicted would be the first black president. In his own narrative of self-discovery - written at the age of 33 - Obama pinpoints a few key moments: an anti-apartheid speech at his Los Angeles college, where he realised the power of his voice; a turn towards scholarly self-discipline in his next few years at Columbia; his exposure to urban deprivation in Chicago. Underlying it all, he postulates, was the desire to live up to the expectations of, and fill the void left by, the brilliant, flawed and vanished African father.

What matters most, though, is not so much when the light of ambition went on – Obama’s own

account is as reliable as any self-mythology – but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it even at the risk of appearing highly presumptuous. Try as his campaign might to mask it, he knew full well the audaciousness of his bet on talent. It was why he was going for it this time around, despite the calls to wait his turn. If he was to run on potential, it would do no good to dull the package with more years on Senate subcommittees. In 2008, he could still run his race from a skyscraper in Chicago, that great heartland city he’d made his home; any later, he’d be running out of DC, where stardom, like the city’s building heights, was levelled by custom. The timing was ideal in other ways, too. If ever the country would be ready for a hyperarticulate candidate running on a platform of pragmatism and reconciliation, it was at the end of the Bush years. Even more opportune was the presence of Hillary Clinton. What better way for a candidate whose biggest weakness was his inexperience than to prove his worth in the act of campaigning – by slaying a giant?

What matters most is not so much when the light of ambition went on, but that Obama realised that it had, and decided to follow it

In August 2007, Obama visited with some Democrats in New Hampshire, the first primary state. Carol Moore, a former state representative, told him she was tired of losing her heart to cerebral, liberal insurgents like Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and New York Knicks player who ran against Al Gore in 2000, only to see them crushed by the Democratic machine. She had decided never to fall for one again, but still she wanted to know from Obama why he would be any different. How could she know he would be able to see it home? "Once I win the primaries, no one's going to doubt my credentials or my toughness," he said, as she relayed it to me. "If I beat Hillary, no one's going to doubt my electability and my qualifications - or my strength."

But Clinton would be most valuable of all as a foil, so well did she offset Obama's "new politics" mantra. There was the war in Iraq, which Obama had opposed, not because it was wrong but because it was "dumb" and "rash". Obama's anti-Clinton critique extended further. His speeches were riddled with put-downs no less effective for leaving her name unsaid, as he called for a politics that "wasn't based on spin and PR" or "triangulating and poll-driven positions". He said he was not running "because of some long-held ambition", and turned every barb from Clinton into a teasing new take on the failures of the "old politics", infuriating her camp.

And Clinton played to form. She seemed to have it both ways in a debate answer on immigration. Her campaign dredged up writings from Obama's Indonesian kindergarten purporting to show that he, too, had nursed presidential dreams. And, one snowy December day at a law office in New Hampshire, one of her top advisers there, a lawyer married to the state's former governor, responded to my questions about Obama's rising poll numbers by expressing his deep concern that, if Obama were to win the nomination, Republicans would inevitably bring up his admitted cocaine use as a young man, and might ask whether he had ever been a drug dealer, because, after all, they would argue, who really knew the extent of it?

In Iowa, where Obama had spent by far the most time, the equation tipped his way. In New Hampshire, where the Clintons' roots ran deeper, she shocked us all, winning by three points just a week after her campaign was caught trying to make its crowds appear larger than they were. Here, Obama's bet on raising the level of discussion had failed. In a debate three days before the vote, he found himself in an awkward position. The moderator had asked Clinton about her low likeability ratings, and her charming response had included praise for Obama. He had to say something, and his rejoinder - "You're likeable enough, Hillary" - made for the most charged and grown-up moment between the two of them all campaign. Saying any more would have been phoney, given her recent attacks on him, yet for all that he still felt some affection for her, and expressed it in the dry tone of a 1940s leading man. She got this, and accepted it with an equally wry and genuine smile. But the adult irony did not translate on screen, the line became enshrined as smug condescension, and, combined with her welling up on camera two days later, it helped rally New Hampshire women to her in big numbers on primary day.

We would get much else wrong. In South Carolina, we would unfairly blame Hillary’s wipeout on Bill’s blundering, when in fact his one big stumble came after most of the votes were cast, when he compared Obama’s victory to the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina wins by Jesse Jackson, the demonstrative civil rights leader who shares little with Obama but the colour of his skin. Obama’s rout was instead the result of the shift of the African-American vote after Iowa – which offered proof “they” would vote for him – a shift that was sealed by his transformation on the South Carolina stump into a master of Southern black vernacular. We would also be slow to recognise that Obama had put himself in position to win the nomination by holding his own on Super Tuesday, the early February day on which 22 states voted. And as it dawned on us, we tried to explain it away, to pretend that this gathering upset was about things other than his talents and the electorate’s gradual reckoning with them. Doing so would have required acknowledging his abilities to an extent that the press felt uncomfortable doing, spooked as it was by Clinton’s (and later John McCain’s) charges of favouritism.

So we focused instead on Obama's record-breaking fundraising, his cohesive brain trust, his stellar ground organisation, his decision to rack up delegates in states with caucuses, where voters expressed their preference in public and where liberal Democrats dominated. All these things were true, but by emphasising them we skirted the obvious, that Obama had been in a position to win those caucuses, starting with Iowa, only because many Democrats had fallen for him in a way they never would for Hillary. Because he had it and she did not - the promise of a true break from the past and the ability to walk two or three times a day into an arena of thousands and pull them in and lift them up with barely a shout, so modulated and assured was his 45-minute, off-the-cuff stump speech. There was, it turned out, a difference between being able to inspire and to rally, which is why Clinton would fall short even as her pitch grew more insistent. The sheer relentlessness could do nothing for the hint of joylessness her campaign had laboured under from the start.

We tried our best to ignore this. In April, many of us gathered in Butte, Montana, a once-thriving silver and copper town that now stands, half-abandoned yet stately and surreal, on a bluff beside a huge abandoned mining pit. There, Obama and Clinton addressed Montana Democrats in a rare joint appearance. He, delivering the norm, and somewhat perfunctorily, held the hall rapt. Whereas she offered herself as merely a more famous variation on the local officials who also spoke - punches at the air, a charge of partisan particulars, the laundry list of correctives, all of it nearly as classic and time-worn as that city on the bluff. The crowd half-listened, the line for Moose Drool beer grew longer. The story of the campaign was laid bare in the contrast, but we, sitting back in the rafters, averted our eyes as best we could. Despatches from the event focused on this or that new charge or policy twist, as if the candidates had even been competing in the same decade.

Clinton herself was more honest on this score, and knew she could never close the gap, which was why she launched her critique of the oratory itself as "empty words". This resonated with those already inclined to distrust Obama, but had limits as an attack, because what was politics but the attempt to communicate with voters and other politicians and bring them to one's side? More than that, it ran up against the fact that Obama was not a political performer in the conventional sense. Most American stump showmen - Huey Long, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton - plunged into the moment, lost themselves to it and the narrative created for them. Obama did not. He relished the crowd, sure, but he did not entirely open himself up to it. Even in the biggest arenas, he retained a hint of the observer's remove, which was to be expected given that he was, after all, a writer. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, if clichéd at moments, had demonstrated a true writer's sensibility, and his political tract, The Audacity of Hope, had managed at points to transcend that form.

This aspect of the candidate was, to me, the biggest mystery of all. Most of us tend towards one pole or the other, observer or participant, critic or actor, consultant or candidate - one burdened by heightened self-awareness, the other liberated, if not always for the best, by a shortage of the same. Here was someone who possessed enough self-consciousness and detachment to have noted, in The Audacity of Hope, telling details of his first visit to the White House - of Bush's asking an aide for a squirt of hand sanitiser in a moment alone with Obama, of the Secret Service's reaction when Obama set his hand on Bush's shoulder. Yet here he was, day after day, also satisfying huge crowds who all expected a revelation. In the week leading up to Super Tuesday: 13 cities in 11 states. In one day alone: 14,000 in Boise, 18,000 in Minneapolis and 20,000 in St Louis. This hybrid character type confounded Clinton's attempt to cast him as a mere itinerant troubadour. But it also helped explain why not all the voters he met were signing on. At some level, perhaps, they could sense that even as Obama was shaking their hand or asking about the new machine on their shop floor, he might be filing something away for the next book.

We could see this unusual blend behind the scenes as well. On his ventures back to the press section of the plane, he bantered with the challenging bravado of the self-confident politician, leaning forward in his trademark white shirt into the scrum of mini-tape recorders and cameras. But even here there was a reserve, a not entirely concealed disdain for our clamouring questions and whatever dust-up of the day they happened to revolve around, as if he thought that presumably well-educated scribes like us ought to know better. There was also a slight reticence one on one. Assigned as the lone "pool" reporter to cover him on a detour from the campaign trail in Ohio to Illinois to attend a memorial service for five college students killed in a classroom shooting, I had several amiable chats with him on the chartered private jet.

We spoke about our kids, home towns, sports. But there was a limit to the engagement - unlike Bill Clinton, this was not a candidate who needed to win over every person presented to him, to convey as much of his brilliance as possible in each encounter. It was as if Obama was held in check by a constant sense of perspective. He enjoyed good conversation, but there were a lot of reporters to meet along the way, a lot of people, and only so many hours in the day. At some point on our return flight, it became clear he just wanted to read the papers, which he did, ploughing through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, front to back.

Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, he felt demoralised over the campaign’s detour into the cultural shadowlands

One April day on her way back from a lunch break in the withered steel town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Theresa Krall, a social worker and Democrat, said she liked Clinton the best. Between Obama and McCain, she wasn’t so sure. “Obama speaks wonderfully, and he’s very intelligent. But I’d have to research more about him against McCain.”

Such was the nature of Obama's bet on meritocracy that, at some point along the way, the primaries against Clinton seemed to blur into the looming general election against John McCain. The conservative, blue-collar Democrats who sided with Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary following the rantings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the long-time minister of Obama's Chicago church, were the same voters Obama would be fighting hardest for months later against McCain. McCain and Clinton echoed each other in savaging Obama for his poorly phrased musings, at a fundraiser in San Francisco, about "bitter" small-town Americans and their tendency to "cling" to guns and religion. It was a riff that showed Obama's analytical side in a less flattering light, drew attention to the very cultural gap he was seeking to close, and was only partly mitigated by having been intended as a defence of rural America against charges of bald racism. Even as he stayed on course to claim the nomination, Obama's demoralisation over the campaign's detour into the cultural and racial shadowlands was plain - the listlessness that some saw on his face at a Philadelphia debate where Clinton brought up his association with a 1960s domestic terrorist-turned-college professor was more like aggrieved disbelief that it should have come to this. Urged to counter during this difficult Rust Belt phase, Obama maintained his trademark equanimity but also stoked false fears about Clinton's health plan and misquoted her as praising the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Later, he would also take out of context McCain's comments about the need for a 100-year US presence in Iraq and about the economy.) Clinton hurt her own cause with embellished tales of landing under sniper fire in Tuzla, Bosnia, ammunition for those who did not trust her word. But Obama's true deliverance came, at last, when both Clinton and McCain tried to push their populist advantage too far, clubbing Obama for his refusal to go along with their call for a summer-long gas tax holiday. It was a classic gimmick (in reality, it would save consumers little) and one that seemed perilous to oppose, but it was just the foothold Obama needed to return to the high ground as he ridiculed the idea at every stop.

This was Obama in his element - quoting experts, appealing to higher reason: "The American people are smarter than Washington gives us credit for." And it worked, as he put the race away in North Carolina. Shortly before the final primaries, he embarked on a victory lap through Oregon, and here was Obama as he wanted to be seen. On the long flight west, he made a rare extended visit to the back of the plane for a word game with the press and aides. (Having to lead his team-mates to the word "revolution" without resorting to the words "American" or "French", he offered: "Thomas Jefferson called for it to happen every once in a while." When none of his team-mates knew the answer, he went more middlebrow: "A Beatles song.") In Eugene, he paid an unannounced visit to the University of Oregon's legendary track in the middle of a big annual athletics meeting; once the women's two-miler was done, the meet came to a halt and the candidate strolled around the track, bathed in sunset and waving up to the old grandstand as the crowd - the ultimate Obama demographic, track enthusiasts in the Pacific north-west - rose as one to applaud. An hour later he spoke to thousands on campus, aglow with self-reflective triumphalism.

"There've been times where you get whacked so many times that after a time, you feel you have to whack back. You've got to go negative. You don't want to look like a wimp," he said. "The times . . . I'm most proud of is when we resisted the impulse, and the times that I'm least proud of is when we succumbed to that impulse."


But the turn towards McCain would renew the original challenge in a different form. Against Clinton, his best card had been the one he wanted to play, the call for new politics. Against McCain, he was expected to wield a blunter instrument: the charge that McCain’s party had made a complete hash of everything. An obvious tack, but it complicated his call for post-partisan reconciliation. His stump speech had from the start been full of economic prescriptions – though these were often overlooked in the focus on his rhetorical crescendos – and he had given several serious addresses on Wall Street reform, demonstrating a deeper engagement on the subject than McCain. Yet the pitch lacked an overarching thrust, a lunge for the Republican jugular. It was as if Obama was held back by what he knew, that much of the country’s economic pain had as much to do with global upheavals as with the Bush tax cuts and trade policies. As if he knew his forays into populism in the primaries had edged into protectionist demagoguery, and that an African-American candidate could afford to sound only just so angry and intense. But it was also as if he thought that winning on the economy was somehow too easy and more conventional than what he had really set out to do in this campaign.

To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only ratcheted up the distrust. Where do they make people like this? Not around here

Chatting with me early in the primaries, David Axelrod, Obama's strategist, said not to expect the usual partisan fire from Obama: "He's never been an aficionado of the cheap applause line. Voters get sold short. They're smart and sophisticated. They realise that it's important to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but that it won't do enough", if "all we do is change parties without challenging our politics".

This sort of talk unnerved Democrats who did not understand why many of Obama's ads against McCain did not hammer the Republican brand more aggressively. They fretted about how Obama's discursive style would fare in the debates, even though he had shown improvement over the course of his countless encounters with Clinton. Obama's challenge on the economy also involved an awkward political reality. Even as the weak economy was making him the alleged favourite, he was in fact lagging in states and regions that had been hit the hardest under Bush. Conditions had only worsened across the Rust Belt since 2004, when Kerry won Michigan and Pennsylvania and narrowly lost Ohio, yet all summer Obama was barely holding on to the first two and lagging in the third. Meanwhile, the former Republican strongholds he was hoping to nab, Virginia and Colorado, were states that remained relatively prosperous.

The easy explanation for this paradox was racial prejudice, but something broader was at work. Over the past decade, Democrats had gained with college-educated professionals and in the more dynamic regions, in formerly Republican areas such as northern Virginia and the Philadelphia suburbs, while Republicans had claimed distressed states that had been Democratic, such as West Virginia, places that felt increasingly disconnected from the megalopolises that candidates of the Kerry and Gore kind most represented. Leading Democrats were worrying about Obama's struggle to carry conservative "Reagan Democrats" whom Clinton had won in the primaries in places like western Pennsylvania, yet many of them had already deserted the party for Bush, and Kerry and Gore had carried that state anyway. Sure, Clinton had a better shot at reclaiming them, and Obama could not lose too many of them, but they were no longer the base of the party, certainly not of his party.


Not that race didn’t play into it. For some, particularly older voters, Obama was the first affirmative-action nominee, period. Bob Norman, a retired awning maker, was blunt when I came to his door in the working-class Cleveland suburb of Parma. “The media’s letting him sled on down the hill because he’s coloured,” he said. Marlene Newlon, a landlord in Grafton, West Virginia, offered a more direct variant as we strolled down the street of that shrivelled railroad town: “I’m not voting for a black president. I’m sorry.”

On the flipside, who knew how many of the young voters who were shattering all assumptions about their endemic apathy were doing so to flaunt their tolerance, a benefit gained from a youth spent listening to Kanye West and imitating Kobe Bryant? And there was the basic fact that what Obama had done was essentially to carry the same highly educated liberals attracted to reformers past (Bradley, Howard Dean, Gary Hart) and then, thanks in part to his heritage, add to them black voters, breaking up the coalition that had helped past machine Democrats stave off the highbrow types.

The more interesting role of race, though, lay in the way Obama's ethnic particulars exacerbated the split perception of his talent. To those unnerved by his gifts, the African roots and Muslim name only further ratcheted the distrust: Where do they make people like this? Not around here . . . Meanwhile, among his admirers, much was made of Obama's ability, as a biracial American, to embrace and represent all. But was it not also true that for many his appeal lay in all the things he was not - that his confounding of the stereotypes on either side only made him more appealing for those inclined to admire such singularity? Consider a black politician of equivalent aptitude with typically African-American roots. Would not his uniqueness have been more obscured than Obama's by discussions of racial redemption and his embodiment of a group? And consider a young white Democrat with the same outsized skills. Would the ambition that drives Obama be writ more conspicuously, and unappealingly, on the face of a rising star who could not, like Obama, be said to be putting his talents towards the cause of national reconciliation? If this bright young white candidate gazed into the distance as is Obama's wont, chin upturned just so, might it appear to voters as if he were thinking only of himself, not of history?

Thus did the elite candidate who happened also to be the first serious black candidate move into the home stretch. McCain picked up where Clinton left off with his “Country First” theme, casting Obama as a self-aggrandising climber and going so far as to charge that “Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”. There were the “celebrity” ads, which in a clever twist showed Obama in a dazzling light, smiling broadly before 200,000 Berliners – he is a star, you are not, and he knows it. But the most direct counter to the audacity of talent would come from Sarah Palin.

Here was a culture warrior from the front lines, her pro-life convictions evident in her decision to carry to term a baby with Down's syndrome and to encourage her pregnant 17-year-old to marry and start a family. In her convention speech, Palin delivered with gusto a speech that bristled with rural resentment, including a quotation from the notorious arch-conservative, anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity." This was followed by a string of bold appeals to the heartland, including her declaration that "it's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice-presidency".

Challenges to her qualifications brought retorts about Obama's own swift rise, to which Obama partisans wanted to respond that it was less about résumés than about capacity and learning and engagement with the broader world. They wanted to say this, but with the spectre of Jefferson's yeoman looming, they mostly held their tongue and grimaced - until, to their delight, Palin's glaring struggles in her television interviews made their case for them.

Palin's stunning burst into the Outside, as Alaskans call the Lower 48, was soon enough trumped by cataclysm, the Wall Street meltdown. And within two weeks, the financial crisis had, among other things, utterly reshaped the presidential race, throwing a bevy of key swing states into clear leads for Obama. This was received as predictable - any evidence of economic plight worked to Obama's benefit, right? But this had not been the case all year. The economy had been in decline all campaign, and yet Obama had failed to open as wide a lead as many Democrats thought he should. Yet something was different now. At one level, the sheer scale of the devastation was prompting a partisan shift that brushed aside all else, a furious lashing out at the incumbent party, maybe even an ideological epiphany. Beyond that, however, it seemed possible that Obama was at last benefiting from the politics of thoughtfulness. Voters who had lost their jobs in Steeltown, USA a year ago had wanted to see more passion than Obama was able or willing to provide. But voters terrified and perplexed about this more abstract, far-reaching crisis wanted something else: to know that the people in charge were thinking hard and carefully before acting. They wanted to see serious deliberation among wise men. Many voters rightly saw the crisis as the fault of the coastal elite, the MBAs who had made their millions pushing paper in New York and the hedge-fund outpost of Greenwich, Connecticut. But voters also saw that a crisis this grave and convoluted required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. And as Obama reacted with his usual restraint - restraint bordering on detachment - and as McCain jerked into a more haphazard response, the needle moved. McCain, so long simply a default option for voters wary of Obama, had, between the Palin pick and response to the crisis, come to seem "unsafe" in his own right, polls showed.

Voters saw that a crisis this grave required an elite response, measured, informed, competent. McCain had come to seem “unsafe” in his own right

The numbers continued to move after their first two debates, where Obama met McCain’s visible contempt with yet more calm, to the frustration of some of his own supporters. Just like that, he was suddenly in command, finally riding the current of economic distress, and positioned to close the deal with the far superior ground organisation and money machine he had been building all year. McCain, meanwhile, made a final attempt to frame the out-of-nowhere talent he was up against as threatening. Palin started it off, with new warnings about the radical/professor whom Obama once knew in Chicago.

"Our opponent . . . is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," she said on the trail in Colorado. "This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America." Such remarks provoked a virulent sort of enthusiasm from members of the party base who now dominated McCain-Palin events. Among undecideds, however, Obama again appeared to be reaping the benefits of his demeanour - exotic as he was, his extreme moderation made it harder for voters to picture him in cahoots with bomb-throwers. His surrogates scolded McCain and Palin for inciting the crowd, and a somewhat abashed McCain tried to switch to a more temperate tone. And Obama plodded happily along, proposing a new $60bn economic relief package on 13 October before retiring to Toledo, Ohio - selected for its proximity to all those long-suffering post- industrial voters who seemed to be finally warming to him - to prepare for the final presidential debate.

Before Palin's debut, and before the markets fell apart, Obama had his final chance at a mass, unmediated presentation of the meritocrat's case, at the Denver convention. The McCain camp howled at Obama's choice of a 76,000-seat stadium and the classical backdrop constructed for the stage, and even many Democrats cringed, but they should have seen it coming. This campaign, after all, had been launched on aspiration and presumption. Not for him the cramped indoor podium where a hundred other pols had all, in their way, made the customary appeal to the average voter in the average state. Barack Obama was betting, again, that America was ready for a little elevation.

So much hung in the dry, thin air of Denver - not just the rest of this astonishing campaign, but also everything after that. What would come of all this if he made it, and finally had the chance to embark on the work he had spent 21 months talking about? How would a post-partisan candidate rein in a Democratic congressional majority out to run roughshod? How would the decisions be made at day's end when all due deliberation had run its course, and the thoughtful unifier was in the position of having to make one side or the other unhappy? (Most immediately: would he stand by his calls for middle-class tax cuts and big spending on health care, alter native energy and infrastructure, even as the deficit hawks claimed these things were now unaffordable? Would he raise taxes on the wealthy and on capital gains even in a deep recession?) How would his reform push fare in a Washington so calcified by lobbyists and corporate lucre, and how disappointed would his expectant base be by the inevitable lapses and compromises?

Most of all, how would this man, who had never run anything but a law review, a Senate office and his campaign staff, fare as national leader in a time of ultimate stress? From early in the campaign, he had opened his stump speeches by declaring he was running now because "we are at a defining moment in our history" and "cannot afford to wait". To some ears, it sounded grandiose. Now, it was all too true. Was this more than he had bargained for - or was this just the sort of moment for which the natural aristocrat was made?

But first, the speech. He laced it with enough partisan fire to satisfy the back-seat drivers worried that he had been insufficiently tough in the face of McCain's barrage. Yet near the end he managed to return to the idea that got it all going back in Iowa a year earlier, and in Boston three years before that, only now it came with the extra edge of having seen just how many were hoping he would fail.

"For part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose - our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to restore," he said. "I know there are those who . . . dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that's to be expected. Because if you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from . . . You make a big election about small things. And you know what - it's worked before. Because it feeds into the cynicism we all have about government . . . But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring."

With just a couple weeks to go, amid earth-shaping gusts even stronger than what he has been creating for nearly two years, it's looking like he might be right.

Alec MacGillis writes the "Letter from Washington" for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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Arron Banks: the man who bought Brexit

He gave £1m to Ukip and spent £7.5m on the Leave campaign. He is friendly with Trump, hates Cameron and admires Putin – now he has Labour voters in his sights.

In 2011 Arron Banks floated Brightside, a Bristol-based insurance broker he had built from practically nothing. Unlike Banks, the new investors wanted to cash in, so the following year they unceremoniously sacked him as chief executive of the company and then in 2014 they sold Brightside to the private equity firm AnaCap for £130m.

Hours after his dismissal Banks, still fuming, went out to lunch with the firm’s commercial director, John Gannon, who had helped him start the business in 2005. In the car Gannon said how bad he felt. He explained how he’d had little choice but to go along with the decision. As they arrived at the Aztec Hotel and Spa, Gannon asked if there was anything he could do to make Banks feel better.

“I said, ‘There is one thing that will make me immediately feel better,’” Banks recalled recently. “‘All I want to do is hit you in the face.’ So he said, ‘Which way would you like me to turn my cheek?’ So he turns to the left and ‘bosh!’ – I hit him as hard as I could and he went over like a bag of cement.” The two men then ate lunch in silence as Gannon pressed an ice bag to his cheek.

Banks’s hunger for revenge did not stop there, however. Within six months he founded a new company, GoSkippy, and proceeded to poach Brightside’s best employees. He sent gloating emails to those former colleagues who had, he said, “stabbed me in the chest”. In one message he bragged: “Virtually all the sales team have left for Skippy – leaving the tea boy in charge.” In another he wrote: “You have no stats, no claims department, no rating engine and f*** all chance of persuading anyone to help create a new insurance vehicle.” In a third he said that being sacked “was like a pair of jump leads; it just fuelled the fires and the desire to show what can be done”. For good measure, after a series of claims and counterclaims, he won an out-of-court settlement from Brightside which cost his former company a few more million.

The saga says much about Banks, the man who subsequently deployed his fortune to campaign for Britain’s exit from the European Union. He is someone you cross or slight at your peril. Speaking on condition of anonymity, which is how most people chose to speak to me about Banks, an insurance industry expert said: “Arron is charming, charismatic and pretty popular in insurance circles. He’s great fun, but the thing about him is he’s very pugnacious. If he feels like you’ve crossed him he’ll come at you with all guns blazing.”

That is a lesson the Conservative hierarchy has also learned. Until 2014 Banks was a Tory party member and a modest donor. He then decided to defect to the UK Independence Party. Amid the pre-election hubbub of that autumn’s Tory conference, Ukip summoned political journalists to a press conference at Old Down Manor, on a Gloucestershire estate that Banks owns, to announce that he was giving it £100,000.

At that time the insurance magnate was hardly a household name, and the occasion was in danger of becoming an embarrassing non-event. But William Hague, the then leader of the House of Commons, inadvertently saved the day. He made the mistake of describing Banks in a radio interview as “somebody we haven’t heard of”. This, as Nigel Farage told me with a laugh, was probably true, because by then Banks had only donated to his constituency party. Banks was nonetheless incensed. He immediately upped his donation to £1m. Hague “called me nobody”, he told the journalists. “Now he knows who I am.”

As in the Brightside saga, Banks did not stop there. He claims to have pumped £7.5m into the Brexit campaign over the past year, most of it to Leave.EU, which is one of the two groups that championed Britain’s departure from the European Union in June’s referendum. That may well be the single biggest donation to a political cause in British history – and arguably it helped change the course of British history.

While most commentators focused on the official Vote Leave campaign and its high-profile political frontmen, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, Leave.EU used social media to galvanise disgruntled blue-collar white voters of the north and Midlands. While Vote Leave concentrated primarily on the economic and sovereignty issues of interest to middle-class Tories, Leave.EU focused relentlessly, shamelessly and often outrageously on immigration. Much of its populist strategy was taken directly from the US presidential campaign of Donald Trump, a man with whom Banks feels such an affinity that his WhatsApp picture shows the two of them standing side by side, smiling at the camera and giving thumbs-up signs.

Few politicians or pundits are inclined to give Leave.EU much credit for Brexit’s victory, but there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that the voters it targeted turned out in record numbers, and it is far from implausible to suggest that its campaign made all the difference in a very close contest. A senior official in the Leave camp – no friend of Banks – acknowledged that a combination of Leave.EU’s social media operation and Farage’s tub-thumping rallies “combined to connect with a large chunk of the blue-collar vote which ultimately proved absolutely critical to the result”.

Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and co-author of Revolt on the Right, about the radical right in Britain, told me: “There’s an awkward attempt under way by those in Vote Leave to say, ‘We were responsible for the result. This had nothing to do with Ukip and Arron Banks, and if anything Vote Leave won in spite of the more hard-edged Eurosceptics.’ I completely disagree with that analysis.”

The vote set Britain on the road to Brexit but did much more than that. It shook a political establishment that Banks regards as self-serving, elitist and corrupt. David Cameron resigned, Labour sank into civil war, and in her speech to the Tory conference on 6 October, Prime Minister Theresa May sought to woo precisely the people who had been targeted by Leave.EU as she drastically repositioned her party.

But Banks is still not finished. He now plans to turn Leave.EU’s legions of supporters into an online “people’s movement”. He wants “to give voice to the forgotten millions of English people” who feel ignored by the political establishment, to an “England rising”. He intends to launch this latest quixotic venture early next year, and his goal is to ensure not only that Brexit – hard Brexit – is implemented in full, but to bring about deep reform of the system he so detests. “We can’t carry on with politics as normal,” he says. “It’s a disastrous state of affairs.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Goodwin warns. “The fact he has a lot of resources, the fact he’s clearly willing to throw them into politics, and the fact he’s now got a track record of building networks and attracting a large database of registered supporters
means anything he does has to be taken seriously . . . My feeling is he’s ideally positioned to build something that could potentially have a very big impact on British politics.”

But just who is this maverick who has risen from obscurity over the past two years and used his wealth to exert a considerable, some would say alarming, degree of influence over our national life?




Banks’s driver, a burly former rugby player, collects me from Bristol Parkway Station in a sleek black BMW, but I soon discover that there’s nothing particularly grand about Banks. I walk into his second-floor office in a bland building on a nearby trading estate to find him wearing a T-shirt, shorts and trainers. He has been to the gym, he explains. He is 50 and needs to lose weight. He had a health scare in South Africa during the summer – a heart problem that required hospital treatment.

The office is light and spacious but unpretentious, save for a photograph of Banks shaking hands with the Prince of Wales at a Royal Commonwealth Society function. It was taken before he joined Ukip, he says with a grin. Before he became a pariah, in other words. On the windowsill is a book called 100 Good Things About the EU: between the covers, every page is blank.

As an ardent Remainer, I am expecting to dislike the man intensely, but I find him disarmingly humorous and frank. We chat for nearly four hours. Whether he is merely generous with his time, or loves the attention, I cannot tell.

He says he was born in Knutsford, Cheshire, and raised by his mother in Basingstoke, Hampshire, while his father managed sugar estates in various African countries – South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Ghana – that they would visit for holidays. “He was awarded an OBE for services to sugar, which is more than I’ll ever get for services to Brexit,” Banks notes wryly.

At 13 he was sent to a “third-rate” boarding school, Crookham Court in Berkshire, which closed in 1989 after Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life programme exposed three of its teachers as paedophiles. He was never abused: he was too busy committing his own transgressions, getting expelled for an “accumulation of offences” that included selling lead filched from the roofs of school buildings. He accepts that his expulsion was entirely justified. It would have happened much earlier, he says, except that the struggling institution needed his fees.

He moved on to St Bartholomew’s in Newbury but was expelled again, this time for a “monumental pub crawl” that ended in a daredevil car stunt. His “lack of educational attainment” ruled out university, so he returned to Basingstoke, where he sold paintings, then vacuum cleaners, then houses. “I was quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy,” he says.

Inspired by Margaret Thatcher, he joined the Young Conservatives and sought election to Basingstoke Council for the Labour-held ward of Norden. He lost, despite buying a Labrador dog to broaden his appeal. He never ran for office again.

It was through the Young Conservatives that he met his first wife, Caroline, a teacher whom he married at 21. “Her parents really didn’t like me,” he recalls, laughing. “I think they wanted their daughter to marry a country solicitor or someone with prospects. When I asked her father [a dentist] if I could marry her he said, ‘No, you can’t.’ I remember writing him a stinking letter along the lines of ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ which didn’t improve matters.”

A neighbour found him an entry-level job at Lloyd’s of London. He stayed seven years, rising to become a deputy underwriter before being recruited to run Norwich Union’s Bristol office. Later he worked as a consultant for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group. A framed $5 bill signed by Buffett hangs on his office wall, alongside a certificate for a single Berkshire Hathaway share that Banks bought for $83,000 a decade ago. It is now worth $216,000.

But Banks was no corporate man. He was too impatient, intolerant, unorthodox. “As I got older I realised there was no respite from stupidity,” he says, so he set up on his own. From a small office above a bakery in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, he launched MotorCycle Direct, which sold insurance to bikers over the phone. After two or three years he sold the firm for “a few million” and opened Commercial Vehicle Direct, which catered for White Van Man. “Within a very short period we were the largest van insurance company in the country,” he says. CVD duly morphed into Brightside, which expanded into multiple forms of insurance – life, cars, homes, travel, pets.

Today Banks owns a majority stake in Conister Bank on the Isle of Man, and several insurance-related businesses, some of which are based on the same island or in two other offshore tax havens: Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands. But he makes no apologies. “I don’t give a monkey’s. I live in England. I pay tax in England . . . My position is: if you don’t like it change the law. Business people will always go for the most efficient thing.” He does little business outside the UK, and so will suffer little if Britain leaves the European single market.

At one point Gibraltar’s financial regulator ordered one of his companies, Southern Rock, which underwrites GoSkippy’s policies, to increase its reserves substantially in order to cover potential payouts. Banks responded as he so often does – aggressively. He threatened legal action. He also bought a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph attacking the regulator and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm; he accuses the regulator of having pressured PwC to exaggerate Southern Rock’s exposure.

Another curious incident involved a then 33-year-old female employee named Jo Featherby. The Sun reported that in 2012 Banks received an official warning from the police following claims that he had harassed her. Banks is unusually coy on the subject. He concedes he was given a warning, and that he settled Featherby’s claim for unfair dismissal out of court, but denies harassing her. He suggests he was merely trying to save her from a “pretty unpleasant boyfriend”, adding: “I probably intervened in something I should not have.”

His first marriage lasted ten years and produced two daughters, Charlotte and Sophie, both now in their twenties with Firsts from Exeter in history and bioscience. Charlotte works in marketing for the National Trust. Sophie, who opposed Brexit, is looking for her first job.

In 2001 he married again, this time to Ekaterina Paderina, known as Katya, a Russian from Yekaterinburg whom he met while attending a Britney Spears concert at the O2 Arena in London as the guest of an insurance
firm. Katya came to Britain in the 1990s to study marketing at Portsmouth University. She overstayed her visa but married Eric Butler, a merchant seaman who, at 54, was more than twice her age. The marriage ended within months, prompting officials to investigate whether it was a sham.

Years later the tabloids discovered that Michael Hancock, a disgraced former SDP/Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth with a history of assisting dubious young women from eastern Europe, had intervened to help Katya stay in the UK. That, plus her fluency in six languages and the fact that Yekaterinburg was once a closed city, led to suggestions that she was a spy. Banks responded by buying a personalised number plate for her Range Rover: X MI5 SPY.

Banks and Katya have raised three more children – Darren, 16, Olivia, 13, and Peter, 11 – who are all enrolled in expensive private schools (the older two board at King’s College, Taunton). “Why would I send them to a state school for a lousy education?” Banks says, when I ask how that squares with his leadership of the “People’s Movement”.

Sadly I did not meet Katya. She advertises herself on the website Model Mayhem as an aspiring actor: “I am fun and friendly with an extensive, glamorous wardrobe and a large house which could be used for location shoots. I will not do nudes.” And I had been repeatedly told how feisty she is, a description Banks cheerily confirms.

He recalls an occasion when they were guests in a corporate box at the Emirates Stadium when Arsenal played CSKA Moscow. Katya started cheering the Russians; the crowd below barracked her. She tried to climb out of the box to confront them, whereupon the stewards hauled her back and took her away for 30 minutes to cool off.

At one point the couple separated for a year. “We’re both quite eclectic, high-energy people and probably needed a break,” he says. “I was sent to the dog kennel for a period of time . . . In the end, we got bored of the divorce and legal bills and decided to give it a miss. You get so angry with the lawyer that it actually brings you together.”

By 2014, the year he defected to Ukip, Banks was riding high. He was worth more than £100m. Besides his insurance businesses, he had acquired five diamond mines – three that once belonged to De Beers in Kimberley, South Africa, and two in Lesotho. He had bought Old Down Manor from the Tubular Bells musician Mike Oldfield and transformed it into a wedding venue. He lived in a handsome stone house in the nearby village of Tockington (where a huge Union Jack flutters above the front lawn), and had another fine home overlooking a game reserve near Pretoria in South Africa. Oscar Pistorius was a neighbour.

He played hard. He owned racehorses. He went to Wimbledon each year and once played Virginia Wade at Queens at a corporate event, winning not a single game. He enjoyed squash, golf and shooting, and had run the London Marathon. He was a member of the RAC club in Pall Mall.

He was also charitable. He had competed in the East African Safari Classic Rally to raise money for Sentebale, Prince Harry’s children’s fund in Lesotho, distributing footballs bearing anti-Aids messages to schoolchildren en route. He had helped build a paediatric hospital in Belize and founded Love Saves the Day, a charity that finances microprojects for Lesotho women. Banks had also given nearly £200,000 to his local Conservative Association – £25,000 in cash and the rest a loan to enable it to buy its premises in Thornbury.

All of which prompts the question: why did he suddenly round on the Tories?



Banks cites his growing aversion to a Tory government led by Old Etonians which was presiding over a deepening gulf between Britain’s haves and have-nots.

“I hate Cameron – viscerally,” he says. “He was smart enough to get a first-class degree in politics and economics at Oxford University, and stupid enough not to realise the damage his policies were doing. Under his government the national debt doubled, interest rates collapsed to zero, the Sunday Times Rich List doubled or quadrupled and the average person’s wages flatlined. His economic policies were unacceptable.

“Cameron stuck in my throat because he was privileged in every possible way but too stupid to understand he should have been trying to help those who needed help.”

When I suggest that a man of his wealth makes an unlikely champion of the struggling working man, Banks retorts: “If you’re saying I should be poor to appreciate [the working man’s plight] I think that’s arrant nonsense.” His own paternal grandfather was a miner, he says. And he insists that he abhors inequality. He favours a near-100 per cent tax on inheritances of more than £5m.

His many critics offer other explanations. A disaffected Ukip ex-official says of his defection: “If you put up a poster saying ‘Look at Me’ outside the Odeon in Leicester Square you could not have made a bigger egotistical statement.” A senior figure in the Leave camp reckons that Banks – a provincial, self-made man who went to the wrong school and missed out on university – has “chips on both shoulders”, and that Hague’s put-down “was one of the most wounding things he could have said about [him]. Everything since that day has been about Banks trying to prove he’s a somebody.”

Others suggest that he had become, by his own admission, a “bored multimillionaire”, and simply saw an opportunity to make trouble and have some fun. “He loves to be mischievous, to upset the apple cart, to be a rebel – the boy who blows raspberries in front of the headmaster,” said a source who worked with him during the referendum.

The opportunity certainly existed in 2014. Ukip had won the elections to the European Parliament that May. Two Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, subsequently defected. The Tories were panicking. “If you ever wanted to jump into politics feet first and have an instant influence then Ukip was the place to do it,” said another former Ukip official. “Farage would have offered him the world. Banks would have thought it was bloody exciting. The party was right at the centre of politics, making headlines and flying high, and he could be up in the cockpit.”

In Farage, moreover, Banks would have seen a kindred spirit – an irreverent, rebellious outsider like himself who was scorned by the political establishment. Their first meeting over lunch at the RAC was not a success. Banks had flu and Farage wasn’t allowed to smoke – not even in the garden. “I had a terrible row with the waiters,” Farage recalls. But thereafter they got on famously. They shared a hatred of the EU – Banks calls it a “closed shop of bankrupt countries” and Britain’s membership “a first-class ticket on the Titanic”. They disdained all forms of political correctness, and they drank together.

“Banks became part of Nigel’s privy council of lads, part of his drinking entourage. They were like a group of best friends with their own secret words and hand gestures and in-jokes,” said the former Ukip official, who recalls several epic drinking sessions. “They regard the politically correct, nannying, self-righteous, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou liberal establishment with contempt and never miss an opportunity to poke it in the eye,” said another source who worked with Banks on Brexit. “They behave like a bunch of schoolboys on a day out – not the Bullingdon Club, but the lower fourth from a Coventry comprehensive.”

Farage puts it slightly differently. Banks “hates political correctness and career politicians and hedgers and trimmers and dissemblers”, he told me. “He’s just enormous fun to be with. When he lets his hair down, boy, he has fun. It’s refreshing to meet someone who knows how to enjoy life as he certainly does in spades.”




On the face of it, the general election of 2015 was a huge disappointment for Ukip. With the help of Banks’s money, the party won nearly four million votes and 13 per cent of the total, but just a single seat in the Commons. Even Farage fell short in Thanet South. Soon afterwards Banks emailed Andrew Reid, Ukip’s treasurer, to suggest that he take over as chief executive because the party organisation was so chaotic. “I’m currently paid a million pounds a year. So you get a million-a-year CEO for free,” Banks wrote. His offer was declined.

But Ukip’s erosion of the core Labour vote had helped the Tories unexpectedly to win an outright majority, with the result that their coalition with the Liberal Democrats was finished. That robbed David Cameron of any excuse for reneging on the promise he had made in 2013 to hold an In/Out referendum on Europe – a promise designed to stall Ukip’s rise. “Four million votes only got us one manky MP,” Banks says, “but it got us what we really wanted, which was the referendum.”

That July, Banks and his long-standing wingman, Andy Wigmore, took Farage off to Belize for a break. Wigmore is another colourful member of the Banks entourage – a naturalised Belizian who serves as trade and industry counsellor at the Belize High Commission in London and represented his country in trap shooting at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (he came last).

The three men stayed at Francis Ford Copolla’s Turtle Inn resort and went deep sea fishing, catching an eight-foot bull shark. They had a night of hard drinking in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye with Michael Ashcroft, the disaffected Tory peer who has extensive business interests in Belize. They also resolved to start preparing immediately for the referendum campaign, though Cameron had not yet set a date, and to create Leave.EU, which Banks would bankroll.

“He’s shown himself to be someone who doesn’t rush into things,” Farage says of Banks. “He thinks and talks, but once he’s made up his mind he goes for it in no uncertain way.”

Banks engaged the Washington campaign strategy firm Goddard Gunster to advise Leave.EU; it swiftly identified immigration as the critical issue and told him how to exploit it. As Banks recalled in the week after the referendum victory: “What they said early on was, ‘Facts don’t work,’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

He also employed Cambridge Analytica, another US company with several high-profile Republican clients, which explained the dark arts of targeted voter messaging. And he met members of Donald Trump’s fledgling presidential bid whose advice provided the bedrock for the Leave.EU campaign: don’t advertise – use social media and be outrageous, because, as Andy Wigmore put it: “The more outrageous you are, the more attention you get.” The result was indeed, by British standards, an egregiously outrageous campaign.

It began with a vicious battle for recognition between Vote Leave and Leave.EU – or rather with Grassroots Out, the umbrella organisation of which Leave.EU was the biggest component. Banks considered Vote Leave an elitist, out-of-touch Tory cartel and nicknamed its chief executive, Matthew Elliott, “Lord Elliott of Loserville”. When Carswell, Ukip’s only surviving MP, sided with Vote Leave, Banks infamously denounced him as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in”.

For its part, Vote Leave considered Ukip and Farage toxic and found the focus on ­immigration distasteful. “The Tory posh boys saw the referendum as theirs to run. They would not discuss the issues we felt would excite the general British public . . . They wanted nothing to do with Ukip or me,” Farage told me with a chuckle.




Banks was furious when the Electoral Commission designated Vote Leave the official voice of the Out side, allowing it to spend £7m in the immediate run-up to the referendum and guaranteeing it free airtime. He threatened legal action, but reconsidered when told this could delay the vote.

Thereafter Leave.EU became, in Banks’s words, “the provisional wing of the Leave campaign”. Operating mainly from his offices in Bristol, it pumped out a stream of videos, cartoons, text messages and “news” clips which it posted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms.

Much of the comment was inflammatory, if not downright xenophobic. “Are you concerned about the amount of crime being committed in the UK by foreign criminals?” asked one video. “Are you worried about the overcrowding of the UK and the burden on the NHS?” another said. One tweet proclaimed: “Islamic extremism is a real threat to our way of life. Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity here,” referring to the deadly attack on a Florida nightclub by an Afghan American on 12 June.

Other messages were disingenuous at best. “Dave wants to give 75m Turks access to your #NHS!” said one, even though there is zero chance of Turkey joining the EU in the foreseeable future. Another quoted Victoria Beckham’s criticism of the EU without mentioning that it was 20 years old. Yet another cited General Sir Mike Jackson’s doubts about the EU but failed to mention that they came from a newspaper article in which he came down in favour of Britain’s continued membership. “We used their own words but picked the bits we wanted,” Banks says. He laughs as he recalls how he ordered a Leave.EU employee who had apologised to the furious general to call Jackson back and “unapologise”.

On occasion Leave.EU went too far even for Farage. In one video promoted by the group, Donald Trump likened Muslim immigrants to a snake that bites a kindly woman who seeks to help it – clearly implying that some immigrants were terrorists. “I wasn’t overly keen on that,” Farage told me. When Farage was excluded from the BBC’s Wembley debate, held two days before the vote, Leave.EU published the mobile-phone numbers of BBC executives and urged its followers to call them. “Nigel bollocked me for that,” Banks confesses. Following the murder of the pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June, Banks commissioned an instant poll to gauge the effect – a move widely seen as distasteful.

“We picked fights with just about everyone,” Banks says, but the more the mainstream media and politicians fulminated at Leave.EU’s antics, the more they drew attention to its message. From Trump, “We learned how to use and abuse the mainstream media with their phoney outrage,” Banks says. “We fed off that fake outrage. All they were doing was giving us more ­oxygen . . . The mainstream media did more to grow our reach than anything else.”

Leave.EU claims that in some weeks it reached as many as 15 million people. One video was viewed 9.3 million times on Facebook. Several were watched more than a million times. Whenever someone “liked” or commented on one he or she was swiftly contacted by Leave.EU’s 70-strong call centre, also housed in the Bristol offices, and invited to join the cause. The Westminster bubble “never understood the power of the beast”, Banks says. “If Vote Leave had run the campaign without Nigel, Ukip and what we did, they’d have lost it hands down.”

The two Leave campaigns certainly dovetailed, albeit inadvertently. Vote Leave courted Tory Eurosceptics from the affluent shires. Leave.EU galvanised poorer, less educated, socially conservative voters in deprived parts of the country that Vote Leave could never hope to reach. Farage says Leave.EU was “largely responsible for finding them, contacting them and reaching out to them, using social media in a way no one in British politics has ever done before”.

Banks has no scruples about the tone or style of the Leave.EU campaign. “Politics is a dirty business,” he says. Indeed, he has written a soon-to-be-published book about the referendum that is gleefully entitled The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign. His co-author is Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist who retailed the hotly disputed story, published in another recent book, about Cameron performing a lewd act on a dead pig while at Oxford.

“We always knew the referendum would come down to two things – the economy on the In side and immigration on the Out side, and that if you could keep the subject on immigration you would win,” Banks says. “What we would do was say things other people were thinking and not prepared to say and then not back down on it. We never back down on anything.”

Banks denies being racist. He claims to support immigration so long as it is controlled. But he does confess to being “tribal”, to feeling more affinity with our Anglo-Saxon “kith and kin” – Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – than with other nationalities. “It’s part of a wider debate about: ‘Should we have our identity destroyed by this liberal globalism, or do we retain pride in our country and what we believe in?’”

He certainly does not apologise for using his substantial wealth to influence the vote. “It’s war,” he says. “If you don’t like it, change the rules. The In campaign was funded by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and a bunch of disreputable corporates. What’s worse?” And he argues: “Why shouldn’t I fight for what I believe in? To me it’s a matter of life and death for my country. We either get back control of our destiny or not.”

Nor does he hide the extent of Donald Trump’s influence on his campaigning style. He knows and likes Trump, saying he is “a lot more amiable and personable” in private. He also shares Trump’s contempt for the political establishment and mainstream media, and admires his ability to reach disaffected voters. Both Banks and Farage attended the Republican convention that nominated Trump in July. Banks was at the Mississippi rally on 24 August at which Farage endorsed Trump and he will attend the final presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday. He thinks Trump will win in November, and would vote for him if he could, because Hillary Clinton “is a continuation of the failed policies of America”.

Banks shrugs off the uproar over Trump’s lewd comments about groping women which were caught on tape. “To a group of people they would probably be unacceptable. If you say them to a friend you know well as banter – so what?”

Does he share Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin? “I do in a way,” says Banks, who enjoyed a long, boozy lunch with the Russian ambassador to Britain at his residence during the referendum campaign. “He’s a nationalist, in the sense he’s trying to look after his country first and others second . . . I admire his strength as a politician but not necessarily all his policies.”

But Putin uses that strength to crush dissent, rig elections and close down the independent media, I point out. “You know as well as I do the words ‘independent media’ don’t mean anything,” Banks retorts. “Murdoch controls all of our terrestrial TV channels [sic], most of our newspapers . . . Maybe he [Putin] is just a bit more brutal in the way he does it.”

He suggests that the president’s military interventions in Ukraine and the Crimea were “a natural reaction to what the West has been doing . . .The Russians have their sphere of influence no different to the rest.” He even defends Russia’s robust military support for a Syrian regime that has used every conceivable barbarity against its own people. “The rebels and Isis are interchangeable,” he contends. “You have to be pragmatic. What’s more important – defeating Isis, or the civil war within Syria?”

At no point does he show any sympathy or understanding for the Syrian refugees who have sought refuge in Europe. Indeed, he defends Ukip’s highly controversial “Breaking Point” poster, showing a line of people queuing to move further north into the EU across the border between Slovenia and Croatia. Look at the picture closely, he says. “They are all young men in their twenties – economic migrants.”

Nor, for that matter, did he express any concern at the spate of anti-foreigner and racial attacks that followed the referendum, including one on a Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith, west London, on 26 June. “What’s a psok cultural centre [sic] when it’s
at home,” he tweeted. “Pack in the guardian connected outrage. Yawn . . .”





Last week, exactly two years after he defected to Ukip, Banks watched, bemused, as Theresa May delivered an establishment-bashing speech to the Tory party conference, courting the very constituency that Ukip and Leave.EU had targeted.

The Prime Minister called the referendum a “quiet revolution . . . in which millions of our fellow citizens stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored any more”. She promised to champion “ordinary working-class people” not the “powerful and privileged”, to help those left behind by globalisation and to curb immigration. She berated those “politicians and commentators” who “find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal”. It was “like watching Nigel in a skirt”, joked Banks, who backed Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership contest and does not believe May will deliver on her promises.

The previous day there had been another surprising development. Diane James resigned just 18 days after replacing Farage as Ukip’s leader, leaving Steven Woolfe as the favourite to succeed her. Then, last Thursday, Woolfe clashed with a fellow Ukip MEP and ended up in hospital in Strasbourg. Banks likes Woolfe, whom he regards as a credible and charismatic figure, with his northern working-class background, but acknowledges that “the Struggle in Strasbourg may well destroy him – he didn’t come out of it very well”.

Banks is now uncertain whether to continue funding Ukip, a party run by “a team of circus clowns”. Much depends, he says, on whether a viable leader emerges from the chaos: a leader capable of controlling the party and taking the battle to Labour. Theresa May has “frozen us out of the Tory side of the equation”, he says, but Ukip now has a “huge opportunity” in Labour’s heartlands because Jeremy Corbyn’s values “just don’t connect with the sort of blue-collar, socially conservative Labour people who voted for Mrs Thatcher”.

Yet Ukip is no longer the project that most enthuses him. Rather, it is his People’s Movement. Unusually, he and Farage disagree about this. Farage believes Banks should preserve the strong Leave.EU brand to fight for the full implementation of Brexit, sector by sector, but Banks has something far more ambitious in mind.

He wants to convert Leave.EU’s hundreds of thousands of followers into an online army, much like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, a force that transcends conventional party politics and the left-right divide. He envisages it as an exercise in direct democracy, a forum where people can post, debate and vote on ideas – and then embrace them in such numbers that politicians are compelled to respond.

The People’s Movement would not be linked to Ukip. It would work to ensure that Brexit is fully implemented, but it would also press for profound political reforms, such as replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate, halving the size of the Commons and introducing fixed terms for MPs. Banks is exploring other bold ideas – ideas that he hopes will appeal to voters of any party – such as replacing foreign aid with a form of service overseas for young Britons, working under the army’s auspices.

The old two-party system is an anachronism, he argues. “Our future lies in a different kind of politics, neither left nor right but radical. We believe there’s a great scope for an online movement that can embrace people from all across the political spectrum. There’s a change in the wind . . . Social media has transformed everything.”

Pie in the sky? Probably, but who knows? Banks is rich, resourceful and determined, and we live in extraordinary times, in which pundits and pollsters are repeatedly proved wrong and populist insurgencies are shaking political establishments across the Western world. Exploiting public discontent has seldom been easier.

Marine Le Pen of the Front National will be fighting for the French presidency next year. The populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland will contest the federal elections in Germany. Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (“Party for Freedom”) will be a strong contender in the Dutch general election. “Banks’s intervention should be seen against that backdrop,” Matthew Goodwin told me. “It’s where we are right now. It’s the zeitgeist.”

Martin Fletcher is an NS contributing writer

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge