UK government is investigating meetings between the Russian embassy and businessman
Brexit backer Arron Banks dismisses row over Russian links as ‘full-scale witch hunt’
The British government said it was examining meetings between the Russian embassy and leading figures in the campaign to leave the EU, even as one of those under scrutiny laughed off the claims as a full-scale witch hunt.
Arron Banks, a businessman who bankrolled a prominent Brexit campaign, has defended his meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the UK.
Mr Banks, who was co-founder of the Leave. EU campaign, was questioned by British parliamentarians on Tuesday about his links with Russia amid claims that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 Brexit vote.
The 52-year-old, who was one of the UK Independence Party’s largest donors, met ambassador Alexander Yakovenko three times between 2015 and 2016.
Responding to questions from the MPs investigating fake news, Mr Banks said: “If the French ambassador called up and asked to meet you for lunch, you’d go. It would be nice.
“What I’m saying is, we’ve now got a full-scale Russian witch hunt going on, but before that it wasn’t an issue.”
Relations between the UK and Russia are at their lowest point in decades since the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury in March.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid revealed on Monday before Mr Banks' appearance in front of the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that his Russian links were being examined by ministers from two separate government departments.
Mr Banks had cancelled his scheduled appearance at the hearing. However, he changed his mind after newspapers revealed over the weekend two further undisclosed meetings with the ambassador.
Reports in The Sunday Times and The Observer said Mr Banks and his colleague Andy Wigmore, who also appeared before the committee, met Mr Yakovenko in November 2016 to discuss potential business opportunities involving gold mines in Russia.
Mr Banks said there was “no definitive evidence” of a conspiracy with Russian officials, but admitted to giving them the telephone number for US President Donald Trump’s transition team before his inauguration.
The millionaire entrepreneur also dismissed allegations by whistle-blower Brittany Kaiser, who said he had illegally used personal data belonging to clients of his insurance companies Eldon and GoSkippy for the Brexit campaign.
He said: “I like to think I'm an evil genius with a white cap who controls all of democracy, but clearly that's not true.”
Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Ms Kaiser had previously told the committee that data had been misused between Leave. EU, UKIP and Mr Banks’ insurance companies during the Brexit referendum campaign.
The disgraced data-mining company Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of illegally harvesting Facebook profiles to sway the US election and the Brexit vote, pitched for work with Leave. EU, but Mr Banks said the company was not involved with the Leave. EU campaign.
"We had two or three meetings with them and it became clear to me that — as is true in a lot of politics — there is a lot of sizzle and sometimes not a lot of substance," he said.
Mr Banks confirmed to the committee that he had been introduced to Cambridge Analytica by former Trump aide Steve Bannon.
The insurance tycoon and Mr Wigmore, Leave. EU’s director of communications, were grilled by MPs about the campaign’s use of “fake news” in the lead up to the vote.
In an apparent buoyant mood throughout the questioning, Mr Banks said he had been happy during the campaign to “lead journalists up the garden path”.
Mr Wigmore said: "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."
Having promised “fireworks” at the hearing, Mr Banks took regular potshots at individual members of the committee, which he claimed was made up of Remain voters.
Asked whether he would campaign again in the event of a second referendum, he said: "If I had my time again, I probably wouldn't have done this in the first place."