A leading Brexiteer has admitted he “led people up the garden path” during the referendum campaign, during a fiery clash with MPs investigating so-called “fake news”.
Leave.EU founder Arron Banks said it had used “alternative methods” to influence the Brexit vote, as he and its communications chief Andy Wigmore were grilled by MPs over the conduct of their campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.
In a robust and occasionally confrontational display at the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee the pair admitted using spin and exaggeration.
But they criticised the evidence given by alleged whistleblowers including Brittany Kaiser and Chris Wylie, saying they were “not particularly credible witnesses”.
Mr Banks confirmed Leave.EU had on Tuesday lodged an appeal against an Electoral Commission finding the organisation breached spending rules during the referendum.
He also confirmed to the committee investigating “fake news” the Brexit-backing group held talks with controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica and intended to use its services if it had been selected as the official Leave campaign – which it was not.
Setting out the campaign’s approach, Mr Banks said: “We were not above using alternative methods to punch home our message or lead people up the garden path if we had to.”
Mr Wigmore added that “the piece of advice that we got, right from the beginning, was remember referendums are not about facts, it’s about emotion and you have got to tap into that emotion”.
He was challenged on a previous claim that Leave.EU had “AI machine learning developed in Bristol by 20 mathematicians and actuaries with input from Cambridge Analytica at the very beginning and then executed by [US political consultancy] Goddard Gunster”.
He replied: “There was probably a bit of boastfulness. I’m an agent provocateur, my job is to spin.
“I would be guilty of being an agent provocateur, slight exaggerating in the message – quite often – I’m guilty of doing that, absolutely.”
In often spikey exchanges with the committee during a hearing lasting three hours, Mr Banks and Mr Wigmore:
– Accused the whole committee of being Remain supporters with a “vested interest in trying to discredit the Brexit campaign”;
– Questioned Tory Damian Collins’ right to chair the hearing, accusing him of accepting “hospitality from Putin’s number one man in the UK” following reports on the Guido Fawkes website that the MP had received tickets to watch Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea worth £1,000;
– Claimed a meeting between Wigmore and Russian officials was initiated to discuss investing in a banana farm in Belize, where he was once a diplomat;
– Accused Parliament of being a source of fake news;
– Walked out of the hearing before the MPs had finished their questions after the committee over-ran, saying they had a lunch appointment.
DUP MP Ian Paisley later said he had an “entertaining lunch” with the pair after the committee hearing, adding there was “no caviar or vodka” in reference to the row over their contacts with Russia.
He tweeted a picture of the group – along with fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson – on the House of Commons terrace.
Mr Banks also addressed reports from the Sunday Times claiming he held a series of undisclosed meetings with Russian embassy officials around the time of the 2016 referendum campaign.
The paper said it had seen emails showing he also discussed a potential business deal involving six Russian gold mines with ambassador Alexander Yakovenko after being introduced to him by a suspected Russian spy.
Mr Banks admitted seeing the ambassador twice, and then the mines owner but declined to get involved after being advised it could be “problematic”.
Mr Banks told the committee: “I have got no business interests in Russia and I have done no business deals in Russia.”
“We met with him – I’m a businessman, why shouldn’t I? I thought it was interesting.”