In 2016, shortly after the EU referendum, I interviewed Arron Banks at length for this magazine. My reading of the man whose record-breaking financial support for the Leave campaign is now under criminal investigation is this: the self-made provincial businessman harbours a deep loathing of a London-based establishment from which he has always felt excluded. Which begs the question: did that great chip on his shoulder render him susceptible to Russian seduction?
Banks, who is 52, has always been a misfit, an outsider. Raised in Basingstoke while his father managed sugar estates in Africa, he was expelled from two second-rate public schools – the first time for stealing lead from the roofs and the second for a “monumental pub crawl”.
That ruled out university. He instead sold vacuum cleaners back in Basingstoke, stood unsuccessfully as a Tory candidate for the local council, and – at 21 – married a teacher despite her parents’ strong disapproval. “They wanted their daughter to marry a country solicitor or someone with prospects,” he told me.
Banks went on to set up insurance companies catering for motorcyclists and White Van Man, and grew rich (he is worth an estimated £100m-£250m). He bought a Gloucestershire manor from Mike Oldfield, the Tubular Bells musician, and a house overlooking a South African game reserve.
He acquired racehorses, went to Wimbledon each year, joined the RAC club and sent his children to expensive private schools. Tellingly for a self-proclaimed rebel, a photograph of him shaking hands with the Prince of Wales adorns his office on a Bristol trading estate.
Banks also donated to his local Conservative association, but was never part of polite society. He was a provocative, belligerent, unpolished maverick. Banks abhorred the Tories’ takeover by David Cameron’s Old Etonian clique. “I hate Cameron – viscerally,” he said to me.
In 2014, having defected to Ukip, Banks donated £100,000 to the party. William Hague, then leader of the House of Commons, made the mistake of dismissing him as “somebody we haven’t heard of”. Incensed, Banks upped his donation to £1m. Hague “called me nobody”, he declared. “Now he knows who I am.”
Hague’s put-down “was one of the most wounding things he could have said about [Banks],” a senior Leave official told me. “Everything since that day has been about Banks trying to prove he’s a somebody.”
During the 2016 Brexit referendum, Banks bankrolled Leave.EU, the renegade wing of the anti-EU campaign. He provided £8m in loans and donations to an organisation that arguably contributed more to the Brexiteers’ victory, by targeting alienated blue-collar workers, than the official Vote Leave campaign.
Banks finally received the recognition he craved, and not just in Britain: he and Nigel Farage were among the first Britons to meet Donald Trump following his presidential election victory that November, posing for photographs beside the gold lift of his Trump Tower penthouse.
Banks also published a book about the campaign, The Bad Boys of Brexit, a title now returning to haunt him as investigators seek to determine whether his badness extended to outright criminality.
By far the most serious allegation is that Russia secretly funded Banks’s contributions to Leave.EU. Banks is certainly well disposed towards Russia. His second wife, Katya, is Russian. He has holidayed in the country. In our interview he expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s strength and nationalism.
He has also been disingenuous, at best, about his own links to Russian officials. In his book he acknowledged having a boozy six-hour lunch with Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, during the referendum campaign. It has since emerged that they met four times, and that he was offered stakes in various gold and diamond-mining ventures, which he says he declined.
Most seriously, the Electoral Commission has now asked the National Crime Agency (NCA) to investigate Banks. It said that it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect a number of criminal offences, including that he was “not the true source” of the contributions to Leave.EU, and that they came through a “non-qualifying or impermissible company” – Rock Holdings, based in the Isle of Man.
During his recent appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, Banks insisted: “There was no Russian money or interference of any type.” But he failed to explain the origin of the money at a time when, according to a Financial Times investigation, his businesses were struggling.
The NCA is highly unlikely to complete its work on the case before Britain’s departure from the EU on 29 March. It may exonerate Banks, but if it did conclude that Russia financed Leave.EU’s campaign, it would be too late to prevent Brexit. Moscow would have succeeded spectacularly in splitting Europe, and gravely destabilising one of its leading democracies, with Banks serving as its willing tool.
This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state