Isabel Oakeshott is co-author with Lord Ashcroft of Call Me Dave.
At exactly the same time that I was penning an article for ConservativeHome last week making the case for the rival Brexit campaigns to unite, Arron Banks was apparently making the same case privately. Unbeknown to me, the man behind leave.eu was busy writing to Matthew Elliott, the man behind Vote Leave, appealing to him to consider joining forces.
In a letter dated November 19th, Banks acknowledges that the long running feud between the two Leave organisations is playing into the hands of pro-European campaigners and hampering the prospects of success in the referendum – just as I argued. He writes that “the chances of accomplishing the historic victory that all Eurosceptics…are yearning to achieve are being damaged. Rather than having one consolidated Leave campaign, we have two Leave organisations. This can only help the ‘IN Campaign’ [sic] and the forces that rage against us.” He suggests both organisations are wasting resources by “replicating similar staffing at great expense” and “duplicating campaign structures” which are vying for media attention.
In a nod to the bad blood between the two camps in recent weeks, he goes on to admit that there have been “times when our respective competitive spirit has spilled over the top,” concluding by appealing for a new start in their relationship. “In terms of uniting Leave.eu and Vote Leave, we have no prior conditions and believe that discussions should now take place that reflect the complementary strengths that the two organisations enjoy,” he writes. The Electoral Commission is expected to make a decision on which organisation is better suited to the job early next year. Just a few weeks ago, a spokesman for Leave.eu was reportedly denying that Banks wanted to merge the campaigns.
It is curious that leave.eu did not choose to publish the letter, with accompanying positive spin. Supporters of Vote Leave are bound to seize on it as a sign that the multi-millionaire businessman fears he cannot win the contest for designation as the official Remain campaign and is desperate to avoid a very public humiliation. If I were Elliott, I would be tempted to put it about that the missive suggests Banks is “throwing in the towel.”
Then again, Banks’ letter could be taken at face value: as an honest acknowledgement that the rivalry between the two camps is doing neither any good. Incidentally, the missive reveals that he also (in his words) “reached out” to Elliott in July and August, appealing for a merger, but the offer was declined. Evidently Elliott is confident he can win this on his own.
A number of influential eurosceptics believe Elliott – who ran the successful ‘No to AV’ campaign with Peter Cruddas, the former Tory Treasurer, during the coalition – is right. They consider the outspoken Banks a “liability”, and would rather he had no involvement whatsoever in the leave campaign. However, there is no doubting the extent of Banks’ commitment to the cause, and the scale of resources at his disposal. His organisation has amassed a considerable following (some 300,000 supporters within three months, according to its own figures) as well as what Banks describes as “a huge social media presence” and the backing of 3000 SME businesses and 1,300 councillors.
There may be as little as nine months left to make the Eurosceptic case before Britain votes, and while Vote Leave has plenty of wealthy backers, it would be a bold move indeed to spurn additional support and expertise. Surely it makes sense for resources to be pooled?
With pride at stake on both sides, perhaps the most important phrase in Banks’ letter is that he has “no prior conditions.” If he means it, perhaps it will not be beyond Elliott’s diplomatic skills to negotiate an amicable merger – with himself in charge.