The UK media has come up with yet another ‘sensational revelation’ that allegedly sheds light on ties between the Kremlin and major Brexit campaigners. The story only seemed to raise laughter from those mentioned in it, though.
There is no rest for the wicked, it seems, as the British media apparently goes to great lengths to continue the narrative of Russia’s interference in the UK’s vote to leave the EU alive. This time, the Sunday Times dug up a story that was immediately turned into a new ‘reason’ for anti-Russian hysteria and even prompted the Minister for the Cabinet Office in Theresa May’s government, David Lidington, to call for an investigation.
The respected “quality paper” reported that Arron Banks, the millionaire co-founder and major funder of the Brexit campaign known as Leave.EU, made repeated contacts with Russian officials and even took such an incautious and reasonably suspicious step to make a trip to Moscow at the time when the UK was at the height of the Brexit campaign. And by saying “repeated contacts,” the Sunday Times actually means as many as three meetings between Banks and Andy Wigmore, the director of communications for Leave.EU, and Russian Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko over a period of more than a year.
The Sunday Times also boldly claims right in the first line of its piece that it managed to reveal “the hidden scale of Kremlin links to the biggest donor to the Brexit campaign.” It is all because the two Brexiteers and the Russian official allegedly discussed the roles of Banks and Wigmore in a deal involving six Russian gold mines.
Banks and Wigmore were expected to involve Lord Charles Guthrie, the former chief of the Defense Staff, and Peter Hambro, a UK businessman, who actually co-founded and owned Petropavlovsk PLC, a major Russian mining company, in a deal envisaging the consolidation of six Russian gold mines into one company. However, the deal has actually fallen through, according to the Sunday Times.
‘We are American spies too’
Banks slammed the report as “complete absolute garbage,” which is comparable to “the Salem witch hunt.” “Yeah, we had two lunches with the Russian ambassador and passed on a business contact. So what?” he told Reuters.
He revealed that he did not only meet with the Russian officials during the Brexit campaign, he also met with many representatives of other countries as well. “It wasn’t just the Russians: we met all sorts of nationalities, we also briefed the State Department in Washington, we also met with the top embassy officials in London,” he said.
The Sunday Times itself mentions in its piece that Banks actually admitted to briefing the CIA on his meetings with the Russian officials. “We actually saw the suits from the American embassy who introduced us to the State Department to explain what had happened and then we briefed the Americans on our meetings with the Russians,” he said, as cited by the paper.
“So if we are Russian spies we must be American spies too,” Banks later told Reuters.
New round of hysteria
The Sunday Times story is based on a batch of emails containing correspondence between Banks, Wigmore and some Russian diplomats and businessmen, including Ambassador Yakovenko’s office, which were provided to the paper by a journalist named Isabel Oakeshott.
The emails themselves, which were carefully presented by the Sunday Times in another piece, actually do not contain a single word about Brexit. The paper also hesitates to make any direct conclusions related to the role of the perceived conspiracy in the Brexit campaign, as it only mentions some in a broader context. Oakeshott is actually the only person who does make some direct hints about the alleged links between the two Brexiteers and the Kremlin.
“Banks and Wigmore were shamelessly used by the Russians,” she told the Sunday Times, adding that the two “genuinely sympathized with some of Putin’s political views.” This journalist, who once worked with Banks on his book ‘The Bad Boys of Brexit,’ later suddenly changed the subject of her interest and started working on a book dedicated to Russia’s use of “hybrid warfare” to influence British politics together with the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft.
As if there were not enough conspiracies in this story already, the Sunday Times decided to spice it up a little bit more by adding a hint of Trump-Russia collusion as well. It repeatedly mentioned that the two Brexiteers discussed Trump during their meeting with Yakovenko, also adding that one of their meetings came just days after Banks and Wigmore visited US President Donald Trump after his election victory.
Predictably, these “revelations” provoked a new outbreak of anti-Russian hysteria. “Those who’ve got the evidence, let them take it to the relevant authorities and let it be looked into,” Lidington told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC One.
A bunch of Tory MPs rushed to brand both Brexiteers as “useful idiots” serving the Kremlin’s interests. Meanwhile, Labour frontbencher Liam Byrne, a shadow digital minister, nervously asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “active measures” indeed “did stretch to Leave.EU.”
As for Banks himself, the recent news seemingly only made him laugh. When asked if he ever got money or assistance from Russia for his Brexit campaign, the businessman said: “No, of course not. You know if I have, I’m still waiting for the cheque.”