A leading Brexiteer under fire for alleged links to Russia said he initially met officials from the country to talk about bananas.
Leave.EU communications chief Andy Wigmore said he instigated the meeting at a Ukip conference and had since met Russian figures “many times”, as he and founder Arron Banks 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 Mr Banks and Mr Wigmore confirmed that Leave.EU had on Tuesday lodged an appeal against an Electoral Commission finding the organisation breached spending rules during the referendum.
Mr Banks 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.
Mr Wigmore told the committee he first met with the Russians in his role as a diplomat for the South American country of Belize.
He said: “We had a couple of issues in relation to bananas and sugar and the initial conversation I had with this gentleman at the Ukip conference – I was trying to find investors to look at perhaps buying a banana farm which had got into trouble because of its owner… and as a consequence Belize couldn’t sell its bananas in places like the United States or the United Kingdom.
“It needed someone to buy them. One of the conversations we had was about that. There was a myriad of things we wanted to talk to them about… it wasn’t anything to do with politics.”
Reports in the Sunday Times claimed Mr Banks 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 told LBC on Monday that he first met the ambassador over a “boozy lunch” that included Stalin vodka, but insisted there was “no evidence” he had taken Russian money.
The Leave.EU founder told MPs on Tuesday that no money from his overseas business interests formed part of his political donations and he was “crystal clear” about the rules.
“I live in south Gloucestershire. I pay my taxes in south Gloucestershire. I pay a shed-load of tax, probably more than the entire committee put together,” he said.
“I’m not going to be lectured about my business interests. I structure everything legally.
“If you don’t like the tax law pertaining to this country, get out there and change that. I would support that in many ways.”
Before questioning had even begun, Mr Wigmore challenged Damian Collins’ right to chair the hearing, following reports on the Guido Fawkes website that the MP had received tickets to Stamford Bridge worth £1,000.
“In light of the fact that, according to Guido, you had some hospitality from Putin’s number one man in the UK, do you not think you are a bit conflicted questioning us about this today?” asked Mr Wigmore.
“Perhaps you might want to recuse yourself and let one of the other people take over as chair?”
A laughing Mr Collins responded: “It’s a nice try, Mr Wigmore. You may have better intel than me.
“I didn’t know that Roman Abramovich was Putin’s number one man in London, but you may know more than I do.
“All I can say is I got invited to the football, I didn’t meet the owner, I wasn’t offered Stalin’s vodka, I’m not as good at pushing their buttons as you are.”