Who is Arron Banks — the bad boy of Brexit?

If the media reports in the UK and American press are anything to go by, before 2014, few outside the UK private sector knew the name Arron Banks — until he and his chums came to be known as the Brexiteers [Bad Boys of Brexit] — of some interest to the US probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the November 2016 US presidential election.

Now he is reported by the BBC to be one of the subjects of inquiries by the British Electoral Commission, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office and a UK parliamentary select committee, investigating allegations of Russian interference, fake news, spending irregularities and misuse of private data in the Brexit campaign.

READ MORE: Hawks confirm chief Brexit financier probe

Born in 1966, the British businessman started his journey into notoriety when he donated in October 2014, £1-million to the UK Independent Party (Ukip), a Eurosceptic, right-wing and anti-immigrant political party. The Bristol Post reported that Banks was previously a Conservative party donor, but announced he was defecting to Ukip in 2014. When former Tory leader William Hague claimed he’d never heard of Banks, he announced he was increasing his donation to £1-million.

The donation to the group, which had been dismissed by Tories as backward racists, or as former Prime Minister David Cameron put it: “swivel-eyed loons” who could barely win a seat in Parliament, allowed Ukip to not fizzle out and begin a more targeted Brexit campaign.

The chubby, moneyed, G&T aficionado has been described by British media as the “leading figure” in various anti-EU campaigns, including Grassroots Out and Leave.EU, as well as the official Vote Leave campaign.

Banks’ close relationship with then Ukip leader Nigel Farage quickly made him a key figure in Ukip and the Guardian reported that he was part of the group that president-elect Donald Trump hosted at Trump Tower shortly after his election victory in 2016.

The father of five, with a reported net worth of £250-million (as of November 2017) was born in Northwich, Cheshire. The New Statesman said he was raised primarily by his mother as his father ran farms in various African countries. He was expelled from two different schools for “an accumulation of offences”, including the sale of lead, stolen from school buildings and other unspecified “high-spirited bad behaviour”.

The Spectator said his second wife Katya — a former gymnast and model whom he married in 2001 — was born in Russia.

Like Trump, Banks is a Twitter “super-user”, who often goads anti-Leave campaigners and journalists into twars.

The ghostwriter and the Russians

It all started with his own disclosure: There has been pointed speculation about Banks’s relationship with Russian officials in the UK since he disclosed in his memoir The Bad Boys of Brexit, that he and his Brexit buddy Andy Wigmore — a former diplomat and businessman — had a “six-hour boozy lunch” with the Russian ambassador in November 2015. But Banks has now been forced to admit the contacts were more extensive than previously stated.

Emails leaked to UK newspapers The Observer and the Sunday Times revealed Banks had far deeper contacts with Russian officials than he initially claimed, they said. The emails — Banks alleges — were stolen. Journalists say they obtained them from a whistleblower.

The Guardian said the correspondence shows he met the Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, three times, rather than once, and that he shared at least one phone number for the Trump transition team with the Russians, and that he was offered a spot in a gold-mining deal in Russia, although it is not clear whether took up the offer. He said he didn’t.

Banks and Wigmore also met ambassador Yakovenko that November, when the gold deal was mentioned, and again a year later, three days after visiting Trump Tower. The disclosures also raise questions as to whether he passed on any sensitive political information in those three meetings. He said he did not.The emails from Banks and key associates were collected by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who ghost-wrote The Bad Boys of Brexit, a diary/memoir of the period leading up to the EU referendum. Oakeshott, described by the Daily Beast as a pro-Brexit journalist is alleged to have held back evidence of links between Russia and the Brexit campaign while playing down so-called conspiracy theories in televised interviews.

Oakeshott collected the emails as part of background research at the time.Instead of alerting authorities to what as contained in the emails, Oakeshott kept them under wraps, saying she only realised their significance as she continued working with Banks and planned to publish them at a later date as part of a separate book she had been working on. Oakeshott claims some of her emails were hacked, but this has been denied by others who had obtained them.

The upstart wannabe’s money

Where did Banks get the money to become a political donor? openDemocracy said that in January 2015, one estimate of his wealth was £100-million. In November 2017 an estimate of £250-million started making the rounds. Banks reportedly began his career when he was offered a junior job at Lloyd’s of London, a British retail and commercial bank with branches across England and Wales despite having never received a formal tertiary education.

openDemocracy said that Banks also owns Eldon Insurance, whose CEO Elizabeth Bilney was in charge at Leave.EU, and where Andy Wigmore is also a director. The company’s profits leapt to £16.7-million for the first half of 2017, which Banks attributes to the business having been transformed by the same artificial intelligence technology used in the Brexit campaign.

Banks has stated that he has a controlling interest in a diamond mine in Kimberley, South Africa, and a licence to mine in Lesotho.

openDemocracy — an independent global media platform — concluded extensive research into Banks’s financial affairs, saying, “the value of his businesses are materially lower than Banks’ own inflated boasts”. It also questions how he could afford large contributions to the Leave campaign.

Banks’ convoluted financial arrangements are partly propped up by companies located in various tax havens, including Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man — where with British businessman Jim Mellon, he owns a bank. In the UK, Companies House records appear to show that Banks has set up 37 different companies using slight variations of his own name.

All this makes it hard to ascertain the origins of the money he used to “buy” the Brexit campaign.

Banks frequently asserts that he runs an insurance business. However, a report by openDemocracy says he has been prohibited by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority from running his own insurance company after a report from Gibralter’s Financial Services Commission “serious and widespread failings”.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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