In February 2019, Conservative MP David Gauke noticed something strange happening in his constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Not only had there been an unusual influx of new members over the previous year, but a campaign was being organised to oust him from his parliamentary seat.
Gauke voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, but as justice secretary he backed Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement three times. In January this year, parliament rejected May’s deal in one of the heaviest government defeats in British history, not least because of strong opposition from hard-line Brexiteers. Now a group of local Conservative members wanted to punish Gauke for supposedly preventing Brexit. Their plan was to force his deselection.
Gauke was not the only Conservative MP facing a revolt by his constituents. Threats of deselection had been made against more than a dozen Tory MPs. Whether or not they voted for May’s deal, all were seen as arch-Remainers frustrating Brexit. On 20 February, three of the most vociferously targeted MPs – Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston – quit the Conservative Party to join the nascent Independent Group for Change (Allen has since become an independent, and Wollaston has joined the Liberal Democrats). In their joint resignation letter, the three MPs blamed a rightward shift in the party that had been “exacerbated by blatant entryism”.
In Gauke’s view, the local campaign against him was not necessarily entryism. “In my case there was one particular individual who wanted to remove me.” Tim Groves, the individual in question, had only joined the party in February, though he claimed to be a long-time Conservative voter. On becoming a member, Groves started organising local party members to bring a vote of no confidence against Gauke.
In April, Gauke offered to sit down with Groves and his supporters. According to Gauke, Groves told him that if he withdrew his “empty rhetoric” against a no-deal Brexit, the campaign would end. But if not, they would call a special general meeting where a vote of no confidence could be held. The threat was clear, Gauke told me: “Drop your position, drop your opposition to no deal, or we’ll seek to deselect you.”
Gauke refused to back down.
By late May, Groves had found the necessary 50 signatories, most of whom were new members, to force a vote of no confidence. A special general meeting of the local association was called for 28 June. Gauke, a government minister, now faced the possibility of a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own local members.
The rules for ousting a Conservative MP are relatively obscure, but “[Groves] was much better informed about the rules than frankly I was, or even the association officers”, Gauke said. “They were dusting down the constitution of the association to see how it all works.”
Tim Groves may have led the local campaign against Gauke, but he did not act alone. In January 2019, shortly before Groves became a party member, the campaign group Leave.EU had published a “Deselect Your Remainer MP” guide online. Leave.EU was founded ahead of the 2016 EU referendum by Arron Banks, a long-time donor to Ukip and a close friend of Nigel Farage. Although the referendum had been won three years ago, Leave.EU was still campaigning hard.
Gauke believed that Leave.EU provided the “blueprint” for the campaign against him. “It was straight from their playbook,” Gauke told me – the procedure of getting 50 signatories, contacting the local party chairman and calling a special general meeting, was detailed step-by-step in the online guide, which was widely promoted on social media, as well as contact information for anyone seeking direct advice from Leave.EU. “Essentially, they provided the expertise,” Gauke said.
When I spoke to Groves, he told me that he did consult Leave.EU’s online guide and that he had been in email contact with staff at Leave.EU’s office in Bristol, but that he led the campaign against Gauke independently. He said he never spoke to Banks.
At Gauke’s special general meeting in June, there was a very high turnout. “It was by far the biggest meeting my association has had in all the time I’ve been a member,” he said, and there were plenty of new faces. “Are we morphing into the Brexit Party?” Gauke asked the members. “If so, I’m not the candidate for you.” According to Gauke, the meeting was relatively civilised despite frustration from long-standing members at newcomers acting like “entryists”.
Ultimately, Gauke won the vote 123 to 61, and responded to a Leave.EU tweet that had anticipated its first “scalp” of a cabinet MP: “Not so fast there, Arron.”
Other Conservative MPs did not fare so well. Dominic Grieve and Phillip Lee lost their own votes of confidence. Lee, who has since defected to the Liberal Democrats, has said he was targeted by an “orchestrated, destructive campaign from outside the party”. Leave.EU responded to Lee’s defeat with a tweet claiming victory: “We did it!”
Leave.EU has also claimed credit for Nick Boles, who is MP for Grantham and Stamford, resigning the Tory whip in April. “There has been a systematic operation of infiltration” into the Tory party, Boles told the Times a few weeks earlier, highlighting “a sudden influx of ex-Ukip members or ex-Ukip voters actively recruited by the organisations Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave”.
For Banks, the Conservative Party’s swing to the right, the resignation of pro-Remain or soft Brexit MPs, and the rise of the Brexit Party, are all down to Leave.EU and its relentless online campaigning. “People haven’t really realised the role we’ve had,” he told me over the phone in May. “It’s had a profound effect, because you can direct your firepower, if you like, directly into the heart of the Conservative Party.”
The official line from the Conservative party is that Banks is overstating Leave.EU’s influence. But even if this is the case, Leave.EU has contributed to a culture of intimidation. Two MPs targeted by Leave.EU’s campaigns, Heidi Allen and Antoinette Sandbach, have both received death threats; one of the culprits has since been jailed, the other handed a suspended prison sentence. There is no evidence that those convicted of threatening the MPs were directly motivated by Leave.EU’s campaigning but the discourse has grown more hostile.
And Leave.EU is winning the online popularity battle, boasting almost a million Facebook followers and consistently enjoying the highest online engagement – likes, shares, comments – of any political organisation or party in the country. The group is using this huge online support to wage a deliberate and coordinated guerrilla war on British politics and the Conservative Party.
So how did a single-issue group set up to influence the EU referendum turn into the UK’s biggest digital political powerhouse?
On 18 November 2015, Leave.EU was officially launched by the group’s co-founder, businessman Richard Tice, alongside Banks, Brittany Kaiser from the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, and Leave.EU’s CEO Liz Bilney, who oversees Banks’s various other businesses.
Preparations for Leave.EU had begun long before its launch. Bilney was already laying the foundations in January 2015, when she flew to Milan to meet the team in charge of digital operations for the Five Star Movement, Italy’s web-based populist party, which is now in power. (Bilney was accompanied by then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage.)
According to Bilney, the meeting shaped Leave.EU’s whole strategy. The key to Five Star’s success was amassing a large online audience and keeping it continually engaged with the party’s digital output, making followers feel as if they were participating in a movement. In Bilney’s view, not only did no other political party or organisation in the UK have a strong web presence, but few had learned the importance of targeting individual followers and urging them to become paying members or activists. This principle of maximised engagement would be at the heart of Leave.EU’s campaign.
The following year, in April 2016, the Electoral Commission awarded official status to Vote Leave, the rival Brexit campaign run by Dominic Cummings. But Leave.EU was prepared to run a far more divisive campaign than Vote Leave, especially on immigration – the most notorious example was the “breaking point” poster with an image of refugees in a long line, unveiled by Nigel Farage in June 2016.
Speaking to the New Statesman in December 2017, Farage remained unapologetic. “The establishment hated it,” he said, “the posh boys at Vote Leave hated it, but it was the right thing to do… I launched the poster, there was a bit of commentary, I had double-page spreads in five national newspapers. There was the usual criticism. It was only when Jo Cox got murdered that they chose to focus on [the poster] as the big issue.”
Such strident anti-immigrant messaging was delivered to a huge online following. By the end of the referendum campaign, Leave.EU’s Facebook page had 800,000 followers, far more than the official Vote Leave campaign, and was reaching up to 15 million people on social media weekly. When Britain’s vote to leave the EU was confirmed on 23 June 2016, it continued posting on social media and showed no intention of disbanding now that the referendum was over.
After the Brexit vote, Banks was so delighted with Leave.EU he openly discussed launching it as a political party. In a New Statesman interview in October 2016, Banks said that he wanted “to give voice to the forgotten millions of English people” ignored by the political establishment. “We can’t carry on with politics as normal,” he said. “It’s a disastrous state of affairs.”
Bilney started to implement Banks’ ambition to become a major political force in the summer after the referendum of 2016, creating a website that would engage users, harvest their data, crowdfund, and provide a forum to discuss policy ideas. Users would even potentially be able to apply to stand as electoral candidates through the website, similar to Five Star’s online direct democracy platform. “For me, it would be a business opportunity – not for making money, but in terms of actually running one of the best political parties in terms of online digital strategy that there is,” Bilney told me. “The success would be having the most members [of any political party].”
The new website was built but never went live, and Banks’s party failed to materialise. “The timing wasn’t right for a new entity,” Banks told me. The Tories first had to be “demonstrably ratted” on Brexit. “You can’t push water up a hill in politics.” Instead, Leave.EU set about influencing other parties. Banks initially advocated a revolution within Ukip, but it struggled after Farage resigned following the Brexit vote, morphing gradually into a far-right movement. Leave.EU focused its attentions on the Tories.
By February 2018, Leave.EU was already backing Boris Johnson for prime minister (and Jacob Rees-Mogg as chancellor). As Theresa May’s internal battles with her party grew and a leadership contest looked increasingly likely, Leave.EU sought to influence the contest through its still- growing army of digital followers.
In summer 2018, Arron Banks and his communications director Andy Wigmore joined forces with Steven Woolfe, a former Ukip MEP who had briefly contested the party leadership. Woolfe told me that he had been urging the Conservative party to embrace traditional right-wing values such as low taxation, small government, and supporting the monarchy and army, “rather than Liberal Democrat conservatism, which had infiltrated the Conservative Party over the past 15 years”. Banks and Wigmore wanted Woolfe to front a new campaign called Blue Wave. The aim, according to Woolfe, was to reinvigorate the Conservatives’ right wing and provide more support for a hard Brexit. Crucially, it would encourage members of the public who shared those values to join or rejoin the party.
Woolfe, Banks and Wigmore also applied to join, but were rejected. “I was told personally by Conservative MPs that the reason I had been rejected is that I was seen as too close to Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore,” Woolfe said. Despite this, Woolfe – backed by funding from Banks – continued with Blue Wave, giving speeches alongside an online campaign targeting right-wing voters as well as former members of the Conservatives who had defected to Ukip.
“It was an immediate success,” Woolfe said. “In the first few days, literally thousands of people were joining up.” By the first week the numbers of people applying to join the Tories had reached five figures, he added, although Woolfe admitted to me that whether their applications were approved was unknown. But in early interviews promoting Blue Wave, he claimed it had resulted in up to 10,000 new members.
Woolfe told me that after a few months of the Blue Wave campaign, 50,000 people had considered joining the Conservatives, according to data he had been shown by Wigmore. Woolfe added he met with a senior Conservative figure who said there had been unusual spikes in membership; several individual MPs’ offices reported between 50 and 100 new members each.
Conservative Party membership had been in decline for years. Arron Banks now claimed the rise in members was all down to his work. “We know from our stats that we encouraged somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 people to join the Tories. If you go and ask most Tory MPs, they’ll tell you they had a huge surge in membership that they couldn’t explain or didn’t really understand,” Banks told me.
The man who bought Brexit: Arron Banks photographed in 2016. Credit: Chris McAndrew for the New Statesman
The initial goal had been to influence an expected leadership contest. But Theresa May won the vote of no confidence against her in December 2018. “So we then turned our attention to the deselection of MPs that were against Brexit, or were… trying to destroy it,” Banks said. Woolfe, who saw Blue Wave as being about “ideas” and developing a positive vision for Britain, began to distance himself from the campaign.
“Dirty Dozen” ads targeting a hit-list of Conservative MPs sympathetic to Remain or opposed to no deal had run the previous October, but now Leave.EU’s deselection campaign went into overdrive. Confidence votes were threatened against several individual MPs. When Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston left the Tories in February, Leave.EU took credit. “All three were about to be deselected before they jumped,” Banks told me.
Officially, the Conservative Party has denied Banks’s claims of infiltration. But the office of one targeted MP I spoke to, whose local party has almost doubled its membership over the last year, was sure Leave.EU was involved – whenever an ad by Leave.EU ran, attacking their MP for his anti-Brexit stance, up to 15 new members would sign up to join the local Conservative Party association. Another targeted MP said that Leave.EU’s “propaganda campaign” had encouraged members to get rid of him. He didn’t expect to be reselected ahead of the next general election.
It’s possible that this is all down to a tactical shift within the party to head off Ukip and the Brexit Party. But Leave.EU has grown into a powerful and effective online force, whose potential for influencing politics should not be underestimated.
“We worked on engagement and how to build a following from the early days,” Liz Bilney told me. “It was nice to see that even after the referendum, the engagement stuck, and the followers stuck – they didn’t drift away.”
The four-person digital team at Leave.EU, based in Bristol – in separate offices to Banks’s other Bristol-based businesses, according to Bilney – has developed a talent for knowing which digital content will generate online traffic (though they still run new ideas by Banks for final approval). The team keeps content varied to “attract different audiences”, Bilney said. “I don’t want our posts to all be angry and dark,” but also positive, funny and informative. “You’ve got to kind of mix up the different messages to keep it fresh. You weave different types of information, otherwise people can get quite bored… they switch off from it.” Banks agreed: “If you look at Momentum or the Labour Party or the Conservatives, they’ve always got a political point… and it’s rather dull a lot of the time, whereas our stuff veers off in all sorts of directions,” he said. “And that is all about collecting followers.”
A key part of the operation is looking at individual followers on social media to determine how to “maximise” their engagement – upgrading someone from liking a post, to buying something at Leave.EU’s online shop, to becoming an activist or paying supporter. Three years on from the referendum, Leave.EU is still allegedly receiving regular donations. A “get involved” link at the bottom of many social media posts links to a page where users can donate, often attached to specific calls to action – a tactic borrowed from Italy’s Five Star. This is supposedly what funds Leave.EU’s campaigns, though Banks has been accused of also drawing on his private wealth.
Much of this digital strategy was portrayed to me as “common sense” campaigning that was just more innovative and forward-thinking than previous political campaign strategies. But Banks has in the past hailed the potential of using artificial intelligence (AI) in combination with algorithms to target voters more precisely. When I spoke to Bilney about this she claimed that AI just meant that Leave.EU made effective use of Facebook’s functionality tools. But Banks states in his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit, that he hired Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting company that offered clients the use of advanced data analytics to hone communication and advertising strategies, ahead of the EU referendum.
Banks described Cambridge Analytica to me as a glorified ads company that “sold brilliant snake oil”, and dismissed revelations about the now-disbanded firm’s data harvesting as “a complete lie from beginning to end”. We may never know the extent to which Cambridge Analytica helped develop Leave.EU’s digital strategy. What we do know is that Leave.EU is now one of the biggest digital forces in British politics. And it is using its online clout to try to shape events.
By contrast, the Conservatives have been slow to adapt to digital campaigning, with low online engagement compared to Leave.EU (though that is changing since Dominic Cummings entered Downing Street). Until last year, the party’s lack of focus on engaging and recruiting new members – in contrast to Labour, which under Jeremy Corbyn boasts one of the biggest party memberships in Europe – had left the grass-roots moribund, making it vulnerable to more dynamic digital campaigns from outside, particularly Leave.EU’s. Only recently have the Tories moved towards slicker videos, as well as a “People’s PMQs” live-streamed on Facebook, and more engaging content.
In March, with her party now deeply divided, Theresa May failed a third time to get her EU deal approved, and later resigned. During the ensuing Conservative leadership contest, Leave.EU strongly backed Boris Johnson, as it had been doing for more than a year. After Johnson won, it tweeted: “A big thank you to the 37,000 Leave.EU supporting Tory members who backed @BorisJohnson and helped make this huge victory possible.”
When I asked Banks at the time how Leave.EU knew that 37,000 of its supporters had signed up and voted for Johnson, he wrote back that he was on holiday. “I think we’re declaring victory,” he added. Liz Bilney initially agreed to a tour of Leave.EU’s offices for this article, but two days before the visit she cancelled, apologising for the short notice, just two hours after I requested advance stats to back up Leave.EU’s claims. “We can also no longer provide any information on statistics at this time,” she added.
It is true that the Tory party has seen an unprecedented growth in its membership after years of decline – in March 2018 membership stood at 124,000, but Conservative HQ now says there are 189,000 members. A party spokesperson said the rise was expected because of a new centralised membership system, as well as the appointment of new campaign managers around the country whose brief included attracting new joiners.
Research into new Conservative members shows a definite swing towards hard Brexit. “It is pretty clear that people who joined since the Brexit referendum are not only more likely to favour a no-deal Brexit, but also to have voted Ukip in 2015,” said Paul Webb, a University of Sussex professor, who has analysed a YouGov data set of Tory members for Footsoldiers, a recently published book about party memberships. “This doesn’t prove that all these people were Ukip activists, but clearly they were Ukip supporters who decided to join the Tories and bring their fervent brand of Europhobia with them.” While this isn’t conclusive evidence of entryism, it would be surprising if Leave.EU’s huge online presence had not played some part in shaping the party’s growing membership.
In the Times last month, the former chancellor Philip Hammond wrote of how the Conservative Party had become “unrecognisable” to the one he joined as a student 35 years ago. “Gone is the relaxed, broad-church coalition, united by a belief in free trade, open markets, fiscal discipline and a fear of the pernicious effects of socialism, but tolerant of a wide range of social and political opinion. In its place is an ideological puritanism that brooks no dissent.” Under Boris Johnson, Hammond and 20 other MPs, including David Gauke – many of whom were targets of Leave.EU’s campaigning – had the Conservative whip withdrawn after supporting legislation to block no deal.
Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is shaking up British politics, and is also based on Five Star’s digital-populist template. Its chairman is Banks ally Richard Tice, and its sole purpose seems identical to Leave.EU’s.
When I asked Arron Banks what the goal was for Leave.EU, he said: “Well, it’s been hugely helpful to the Brexit Party.” Did this mean the digital teams of Leave.EU and the Brexit party were co-ordinating? “Not really,” Banks replied. “We’ve kept them pretty separate for reasonable reasons – we don’t want to cross-pollinate the two.” He added: “But clearly we’re Nigel supporters. And we’re going to be backing him in whichever way we can.” Bilney said there was no “underlying pact” between the two, adding that they had to be “very, very careful about having any affiliation” due to rules on political parties and organisations working together during campaigns.
Although Banks and Farage have had a close relationship, Banks declined to say how much they are now in contact. “I’m not going to get into my relationship with Nigel, because obviously at the moment, there’s a lot of speculation,” he said. “But we’re extremely supportive of the Brexit Party, we want to see it do extremely well.”
But the Tories remained in his sights. “Our role is more guerrilla-like,” Banks said, “getting inside the Conservative Party and wreaking havoc to make the Brexit Party’s job even easier.”
Darren Loucaides is a writer based in Barcelona and London. @DarrenLoucaides