The Bad Boys of Brexit
Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign | by Arron Banks
HOW IT BEGAN
In a way, it all started in a pub in Guernsey.
It was June 2015, and the Tories had just won the general election. The party would now have to deliver its pledge to hold an EU referendum.
The election campaign had been gruelling, and UKIP leader Nigel Farage was feeling battered. His attempt to win a parliamentary seat had ended in failure and he was unsure what the future held. When an old friend invited him to join a short business cruise for two or three dozen right-leaning industrialists on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, he was glad to accept.
Also on that cruise was a political strategist named Matthew Elliott. The brains behind the influential TaxPayers’ Alliance think tank, Elliott was a familiar figure in Westminster circles.
He was delighted by the opportunity to network with some of the wealthiest political donors in the country. He had big plans for the year ahead.
The ship had docked for a few hours and Farage, who likes nothing better than sampling a new hostelry, had run ashore for a lunchtime pint. As he sat with a beer in St Peter Port, he spotted Elliott strolling by and beckoned him in. The discussion that followed would determine how the battle for Britain to leave the European Union would take shape.
Both men expected to play a central role. Elliott already had one successful referendum under his belt (the No to AV plebiscite on an alternative voting system in 2012) and was part of the political establishment. Respected by senior Tories and political journalists alike, over the years he had amassed a network of rich patrons who could be called upon to back his projects. By the time he and Farage met on the cruise, he had already laid the foundations for his bid to mastermind the referendum campaign by setting up a Eurosceptic pressure group called Business for Britain.
For his part, Farage had been preparing for the referendum all his political life. He had spent the best part of a quarter of a century fighting to get Britain out of the EU. Now, as the man who had done more than any other individual to bring about the referendum, he naturally expected to be at the heart of the campaign. Where did he figure in Elliott’s game plan?
This is what the two men discussed that day. The tension was not just about egos – though egos certainly played a part. At heart was a fundamental difference of opinion over how the campaign should be fought and whether Farage should be at the forefront. ‘I think you should leave it to the experts,’ Elliott told him – by which he meant strategists like himself.
Farage was affronted. He was also worried. Years of grassroots campaigning all over Britain had taught him that immigration was a massive issue among working-class and lower-middle-class voters. When it came to Britain’s relationship with Brussels, he knew that the EU’s sacred open borders policy was the issue that most rankled with these groups, however queasy it made the bien pensants in London. Of course he recognised the importance of arguments about business and sovereignty, but he was adamant that deepening public concern about mass migration was the key to Brexit.
Elliott disagreed. He believed focusing on immigration would drag the campaign into a fatal row about racism and xenophobia.
He also believed Farage was too divisive to win over floating voters. Plus, he wanted to give Prime Minister David Cameron a chance to negotiate a better deal with Brussels – as the PM had always promised the electorate – before committing himself to an Out campaign.
There was little common ground.
A horn sounded, signalling that the Queen Elizabeth was preparing to leave port, and the pair hurried back to the ship. Reflecting on their conversation, Farage fell into a gloom. He now had deep misgivings about the looming campaign. On his return from the cruise, he called me. ‘We’re going to lose this referendum unless we do something,’ he told me anxiously. I listened carefully to what Nigel had to say, and knew immediately that I wanted to help. I knew there was no greater champion of the Eurosceptic cause, and trusted his judgement implicitly. I also liked him enormously. I was ready to do whatever it took.
Our relationship had not begun well. We first met in the grand environs of the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall in summer 2014. Nigel, a twenty-a-day man, immediately upset staff by lighting up a cigarette. He was extremely grumpy when politely asked to desist, becoming even more bad tempered and rude when he was told he could not even smoke in the garden. He started muttering about Britain being ‘a free country’ and I began to have visions of my membership of the club being revoked. It did not help that we were both feeling under the weather. He seemed on edge throughout, and I left the encounter unimpressed. Nonetheless, I admired what he was doing, and indicated that I might be willing to support UKIP financially at some point in the future.
That moment came far sooner than I expected, following a remarkable upturn in UKIP’s political fortunes. In the autumn of 2014, two Tory MPs – Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – dramatically defected, and Farage was keen to keep up the momentum.
At the time, I was still a member of the Conservatives, having been very active in the party when I was young. At the age of twenty-one, I had been vice-chairman of my local Tory association and had stood as a councillor in a Labour stronghold in Basingstoke. I was the youngest Conservative candidate in the country and received a letter from Margaret Thatcher acknowledging this special status. I failed to win the ward, however, and ended up pursuing a career in business instead.
For a long time I was too busy with my career and bringing up a young family to get actively involved in politics again. I never lost interest in politics, however, and watched with dismay as John Major blithely signed away our control over our borders via the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
As power ebbed from Westminster, I knew it would be much harder to hold our elected representatives to account, and that this lack of accountability would lead inevitably to shoddy government and lower standards in public life. The erosion of our ability to determine our own laws and choose our way of life had only just begun. I hated it, and I couldn’t understand why the party that was supposed to be more dedicated to upholding our historic constitution and hard-won democratic freedoms than any other was now palming everything off to a clique of anonymous, unelected foreign officials. It felt like a betrayal. Though I remained a member of the Tory Party, and supported my local association financially, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned by the party’s weak stance on Europe.
That first meeting with Farage, unsatisfactory as it was, marked a turning point in my political allegiances. Not long afterwards, he rang rather tentatively asking whether I might consider making a donation of £100,000, which he said could be presented as another defection, albeit by a donor not an MP. I immediately agreed. My businesses in this country and overseas, where I own a number of diamond mines, were doing very well. I wanted to give something back, and help the fight to get Britain out of the EU.
My decision to give money to UKIP gave me an unpleasant taste of the way big political power players dismiss people like me who are not part of the club. On the morning the donation was made public, I was sitting in bed eating toast and honey and flicked on Sky News to see William Hague snootily dismissing me as a nobody.
A few minutes later, Farage was on the phone. ‘The Foreign Secretary is all over the television saying he doesn’t know who you are, and nobody he knows has ever heard of you,’ he reported. ‘I know,’ I replied. ‘What a cheek! Let’s up the donation to £1 million!’
Farage was amazed. He had been more than happy with the original amount, and didn’t believe I was serious.
‘I mean it,’ I said firmly. ‘Let’s do this.’
‘OK, leave it with me,’ Farage replied excitably.
At which point he hotfooted it off to brief the press. Speculation was rife that more Tory MPs were going to change sides, and Nigel, somewhat disingenuously, was briefing that another defection was imminent.
Before I’d had time to gather my thoughts, hundreds of journalists and cameramen began descending on Old Down, my country estate. The scenes that followed were totally chaotic. In my fit of pique, I had forgotten that my wife and I were due to host a major fundraiser for a Belize children’s charity that evening. We had invited the wife of the Prime Minister of Belize, who was staying with us, as well as half the members of the South West Conservative Party. Also joining us was as a senior figure from the Commonwealth Society with close links to the royal household, who was due to arrive early.
To his bemusement, the unfortunate Palace insider appeared at exactly the same time as the press pack were arriving. (His response to the bizarre unfolding spectacle was some most uncourtly language: ‘Holy shit.’)
Farage himself arrived in high spirits and ordered me to get out and face the cameras. As I emerged from the house and nervously surveyed the scene, I could see a ripple of disgust spread through the press pack. They had been dragged down the M4 on a false premise, and did nothing to hide their disappointment that I was not a politician.
Having come all this way, however, they were loath to waste the story, and my new donation was headline news.
When they had all buggered off, I suggested Farage spend the night at Old Down, and invited him to do the charity auction at our fundraising dinner. The Conservatives I’d invited were surprised and dismayed that their host had not only dramatically left the party but also forced them to spend an evening with Farage. It’s fair to say the reaction was mixed. At least one inebriated and indignant guest had to be escorted from the premises after becoming abusive towards our special guest. Nonetheless, the evening was a roaring success and raised a lot of money for a great cause.
I was still high on adrenalin after all the guests had departed, and took it into my head to clamber onto the roof of my Land Rover to watch the sun rise.
Not long afterwards, Farage, who had stopped drinking only a little earlier and can have had no more than two hours’ sleep, emerged from the house bright as a button and found me in a crumpled heap on the gravel, having rolled off the car with an ungainly thud and fallen asleep where I landed.
It marked the beginning of what has become a firm friendship.
In the months that followed, I became increasingly involved in UKIP politics. As a businessman, I was shocked and dismayed by what I learned about the inner workings of the party. It was hopelessly dysfunctional and ill-prepared for campaigning.
It was far less of a threat to the Conservatives than it appeared. Nonetheless, Farage’s huge personal following frightened them. They certainly did not want him becoming an MP. As I was to discover, they were ready to go to any lengths to prevent it happening, including, apparently, breaking the law.
In this enterprise, they had a highly valuable and willing accomplice in the shape of the recently converted UKIP MP for Clacton. As one of just two Kippers in the Commons, Carswell was in a powerful position. His decision to defect must have been quite a wrench. He had been actively involved in the Tory Party for at least fifteen years, and an MP for almost a decade. The Eurosceptic Tory MEP Dan Hannan was one of his closest friends. His arrival was a huge boost for UKIP, helping to create the credibility and energy it needed to do well in 2015, but it would return to haunt Farage.
From the start, there were lingering suspicions among some Kippers that his decision was not made on principle. Clacton is a staunchly Eurosceptic part of the country, and private polling suggested that UKIP was a serious threat to the sitting MP. Carswell was in very real danger of losing his seat.
Only he knows whether his heart was ever really in leaving the Conservative Party, but it is interesting that he went to great lengths to ensure that if his great gamble backfired, he would be well looked after. Arrangements were put in place for him to receive a considerable sum of money from UKIP if he failed to win the by-election triggered by his defection. In the event, he held onto the seat, and the compensation package proved unnecessary.
Fast forward to the general election, and Farage’s own bid to enter Parliament turned South Thanet into the most bitterly contested seat in the country. In an increasingly febrile atmosphere, an array of individuals and organisations of all political hues coalesced to thwart him. It was not a fair fight. We now know that the Conservative Party had no compunction about busting legal spending limits, pouring huge sums of money and other resources into the seat. They used a variety of ruses to mask their activities. Moreover, it appears they may also have got their hands on some very useful inside information.
Carswell was one of just three individuals with access to UKIP’s highly sensitive private polling on target seats. This detailed data identified specific streets and households whose support would be pivotal to win the seat. With an official role overseeing UKIP’s target seat campaign, Carswell was supposed to use it to do everything in his power to propel candidates to victory – including the party leader.
As the battle for the seat intensified, Farage was surprised and concerned to find that Tory activists were targeting the exact same individuals in South Thanet. It now appears that they were doing so via a highly unethical ‘push polling’ operation based in the south-west London suburb of Kingston, which involved using loaded questions to plant negative ideas about Nigel in voters’ minds.
How did they come to be so well informed?
We may never know. Long after polling day, however, my own forensic post-mortem examination of South Thanet revealed something quite remarkable: Carswell was routinely downloading the data and sending it to an anonymous computer server.
He did so on six separate occasions. While there were files on every target seat in the country, curiously, only the information about South Thanet was shared. Quite where the information went once it left our offices, nobody knows, but I can make an educated guess: the Tories. This private data could have made it much easier for the Tories to target floating voters in the constituency.
Farage duly lost the seat. Soon after the election, he resigned as UKIP leader.
Taken together, the excessive spending, the push polling, and the very murky ‘sharing’ of UKIP’s private data suggest an extraordinary stitch-up by the Tories. This information is now in the hands of the police.
Farage’s notorious decision to ‘un-resign’ was prompted by a hostile phone call from Carswell. Now UKIP’s only MP (Reckless having lost his seat) and in control of £650,000 of taxpayers’ money designed to support opposition parties, Carswell was more empowered than ever. During a highly unpleasant exchange, he told Farage to stay out of the referendum campaign. It was a step too far, and it backfired. Farage returned to the leadership, determined to play the campaign his own way.
Now deeply mistrustful of the Tories and elements within his own party, he asked me to consider running it. I said yes immediately.
I cared so much about the cause, and was so outraged by his treatment, that I was ready to put in several million pounds from my own fortune. In July 2015, with my friend and business associate Andy ‘Wiggy’ Wigmore, I began building the campaign.
Nigel had a clear vision for our role. Knowing that the Conservatives would avoid talking about immigration, he wanted us to put the issue at the forefront of our efforts. Our brief was to do what even he could not: be as provocative as required to keep immigration at the top of the agenda.
This book is the story of how we responded.
Our methods were unorthodox and often landed us in hot water. We were undoubtedly the ‘bad boys’ of the referendum campaign. Our belligerent approach to politicians and other people we felt were letting down the country upset the establishment and we fell out with everyone from NASA to Posh Spice. At times, even Farage thought we went too far.
Yet it worked. Through the power of social media, we were creating an extraordinary mass movement, drawing in swathes of voters neglected by the main political parties. At times our social media reach hit nearly 20 million people in a week – a third of the entire population.
We never set out to cosy up to politicians or even to influence them. Our strategy was to go direct to the people, using techniques that bypassed the mainstream media. It may have appeared chaotic, but the thinking behind it was very clear. In America, Donald Trump, the ultimate political outsider, is doing similar things.
For all the larks, we took our efforts to persuade the Electoral Commission to designate us as the official Leave campaign extremely seriously. In the end, we failed. In hindsight, it’s not surprising. We were rank outsiders, and could be loose cannons. In any case, it turned out to be a good thing. So far from giving up, we proceeded to run a parallel operation to the official campaign run by Elliott. While we were constrained by legal spending limits, we were otherwise gloriously unaccountable.
Ours became the guerrilla war. It was not for the faint-hearted, but we enjoyed almost every minute. I believe it was pivotal to the outcome of the referendum.
This is my diary of our adventures.
The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign
by Arron Banks