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James Ball’s Deconstructed: Arron Banks investigation

Leave campaigner Arron Banks, who is being investigated by the National Crime Agency for "suspected criminal offences" committed during the Brexit referendum, speaks to the media outside BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the Andrew Marr show. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Is Arron Banks a bad boy or sad chancer, asks JAMES BALL

It’s almost easy to feel fatigued: another week, another set of fresh allegations connected to Brexit. This week, though, we’ve had two – and both sets refer to Arron Banks.

During the course of the EU referendum campaign, Banks became the biggest political donor in UK history, as well as one of the campaign’s loudest – if often repellent – voices, even promoting his antics soon after Leave’s victory with a book, The Bad Boys of Brexit.

If his interviews are to be believed (and according to his and his PR man Andy Wigmore’s evidence to parliament, they are often not), Banks now regrets what was unleashed during Brexit, and perhaps would even prefer remaining in the EU to any possible compromise which Theresa May would hope to achieve in the coming months.

Banks has reasons far closer to home to regret the prominence he achieved for himself, though. Last week, the Electoral Commission – in a poorly-phrased press release – revealed they were referring Banks and several of his associates to the National Crime Agency, under suspicion of multiple offences relating to the EU referendum campaign.

Despite various reports and whispers aimed at connecting Banks to Russia or other state misinformation efforts, these allegations were – so far, at least – unrelated to any such things.

Instead, the Electoral Commission alleges, Banks and his associates were dishonest in their arrangements for sorting out his £8 million loan to pro-Leave campaigns, £2.9 million of which was spent on campaigning during the key pre-referendum period.

This is a substantial sum: around 20% of total Leave spending during the key period, and the Electoral Commission claims none of it was eligible as a donation – a serious allegation just by itself. The reason the donation is ineligible, the Commission report states, is that it originated as a ‘shareholder loan’ from Banks’s offshore Isle of Man-based holding company, which as it is a non-UK company is not eligible to donate in UK referendums.

The headaches for Banks get worse. He and others around him are then accused of deceiving authorities as to the real source of this funding, saying it came from Banks’s personal wealth and from his UK-based service company – both of which would be eligible to donate.

The Electoral Commission alleges that paperwork – even company accounts – were forged to perpetuate this, which are further serious criminal matters. The Banks NCA referral might not be the Russian smoking gun some hoped for, but it is a very substantial case and a very serious matter.

Needless to say, Banks vociferously denied the allegations – but then more was to come.

In an update to parliament, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released more details on its mind-numbingly complex investigation into how political campaigns and parties use data, which involves analysing 7,000,000 gigabytes of data across 172 organisations, including parties, campaigns, data brokers, and more.

Much in that report was underwhelming or already-known – it is less a single investigation as approaching a dozen related investigations into overlapping issues. But there was fresh bad news for Banks – the ICO intends to fine Leave.EU and Banks’ insurance company for misuse of data between the two.

One allegation – the organisations still have chance to formally respond and so allegations and mooted penalties are not final – centres around Leave.EU using customer information from Eldon Insurance (which trades as GoSkippy) to send pro-Brexit messages, which consumers had not consented to receive.

This is the key allegation with respect to Brexit, in that it would suggest some promotional communications were sent in violation of the laws governing email advertising – though there are still some allegations at an earlier stage around data-sharing affecting the Remain campaign.

However, Banks is also accused of the flip-side: using information harvested by Leave.EU to try to sell Brexit supporters insurance – benefitting his business. The ICO estimates as many as one million people may have received such emails, suggesting Banks hoped he may be on to a nice little earner.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Banks waved away the new allegations, tweeting ‘gosh we communicated with our supporters and offered them a 10% Brexit discount after the vote! So what?’

So a potential £135,000 fine is what: almost evenly split between the alleged illicit help Eldon gave to Leave.EU – which Banks conveniently ignored – and half for the little boost Banks tried to give to his business, using a political mailing list for his own commercial purposes.

We may yet find out more about Banks, how he became rich, and how he funded Brexit – but the overwhelming impression you get from the investigations into him for date is that he’s long been a wide boy, playing fast and loose with the rules, who is withering under the detailed scrutiny that being nearer the top of politics brings.

No wonder he claims to be regretting things.

On the evidence we’ve seen so far, we might almost come to believe Banks is less a ‘bad boy’ than a ‘sad chancer’ – but that doesn’t mean his actions haven’t had serious consequences. He, and we, should await the outcomes of these investigations with interest.

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