Isabel Oakeshott is co-author with Lord Ashcroft of Call Me Dave.
At stake is a £7 million prize and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the men who changed history. The competitors have put heart and soul into their preparations – and, for the first time this week, it looks possible that the underdog might win.
The contest is between two groups hoping to lead the campaign for “Brexit” in the EU referendum, a fight which matters, because the outcome will have a significant, perhaps decisive, bearing on how the referendum itself plays out. Some, for whom Brexit has been a lifelong political dream, are convinced that if the current front-runner secures the official designation, winning the referendum itself will be a lost cause – but the underdog is equally unlikely to succeed alone. Locked in a bitter battle, the two contenders are devoting considerable energy to attempting to discredit each other.
Few at Westminster know much about Arron Banks, the punchy figure many expect to be the ‘also ran.’ The man behind leave.eu, he is a colourful individual with a stake in a former De Beers diamond mine in South Africa and a Russian wife who was once caught up in a spy scandal. He made his fortune in the insurance industry, and used to give a bit of money to the Conservatives before becoming obsessed by the EU question. In 2014, he made a £100,000 donation to UKIP – dramatically upping it to £1 million a few hours later when William Hague, then the Foreign Secretary, insulted him. “He [Hague] called me ‘a nobody’ … Now he knows who I am,” he said at the time.
Since then, Banks has not set out to court publicity – but, when his team outlined its strategy at a press conference this week, I realised it should be not be dismissed as a side show. He is a serious operator, and just because he is not part of the usual Westminster ‘scene’ does not mean that he has no chance of securing the coveted official designation, and with it the all-important opportunity to spend up to £7 million fighting the actual referendum campaign.
By contrast, Matthew Elliott, who runs rival campaign Vote Leave, is a familiar figure in SW1. His is a slick, professional operation supported by numerous Tory MPs and peers as well as three Labour MPs, and Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP. It is also backed by an impressive list of business figures.
A brilliant networker and consummate professional, Elliott is part of the Westminster establishment and lives and breathes political campaigns. Some years ago, he came within a whisker of taking a job in Downing Street, so much so that he was given a guided tour of Number Ten and shown his future desk. At the eleventh hour, the appointment was purportedly vetoed by Nick Clegg (an excuse familiar to those who have read Call Me Dave) but David Cameron did later ask him to run the ‘No to AV’ campaign, and it was a triumph.
Since founding the Taxpayers’ Alliance in 2004, Elliott has amassed an impressive range of media and political contacts, many of whom he can count as friends. His projects and organisations have long relied on wealthy backers, and these days he has an array of super-rich right wingers on speed dial.
Among his best contacts is Peter Cruddas, a self-made billionaire who gives generously to causes in which he believes and is one of Vote Leave’s three treasurers. (The others are Stuart Wheeler, who once gave the Tories £5 million; and Labour’s biggest individual donor, John Mills.)
The philanthropist and former Tory party treasurer stepped in when the ‘No to AV’ campaign was struggling, and helped Elliott transform it into a winning force. He has energy; business nous; and a clear-sightedness that comes from a life outside the Westminster bubble. As my old paper the Sunday Times discovered to its cost when it targeted him in an undercover sting (he sued), Cruddas likes a good fight, and he plays to win.
Throw in Dominic Cummings, the brilliant former special adviser to Michael Gove, and now Campaign Director at Vote Leave, and it is easy to see why the commentariat (myself included) has rather taken it for granted that Elliott will run the Brexit campaign. But there are signs that this assumption may be misplaced.
Vote Leave likes to point out that Banks has not signed up a single MP to his cause, but the businessman is turning this apparent weakness to his advantage, cleverly positioning his outfit as the “People’s Campaign.” He believes ordinary individuals, not politicians, are best placed to make the argument for leaving the EU, and that MPs should not monopolise the debate. He realises politicians have some part to play, so he has targeted local councillors – he claims over a thousand have signed up to his campaign, 154 of them from the Labour Party – to lead what he characterises as “the UK’s fastest growing grassroots organisation.”
He claims to have more than a quarter of a million supporters, including some 3000 small and medium sized businesses. He has drafted in American campaigners Goddard Gunster (who boast of a 90 per cent success rate in referendum campaigns around the world) and Cambridge Analytica, which specialises in targeted voter messaging (and makes similarly impressive sounding claims about hit rates.) He has even hired the services of a professional cartoonist.
What matters most when it comes to this contest, however, is meeting the exacting criteria laid down by the Electoral Commission for official designation – and Banks is confident that on this front he is ahead. He has been meticulous about the tick boxing, taking extensive legal advice about how to exceed the formal requirements. It is clear he is ready to spend whatever it takes. “If the Electoral Commission had to make a decision tomorrow, leave.eu would win. No doubt,” according to one neutral observer who understands the minutiae.
Of course if you start from nothing, it’s not hard to become the “fastest growing” campaign and there is no doubt that leave.eu has some serious difficulties. Nigel Farage is scathing about its press operation, saying that leave.eu does not understand or know how to work the Westminster media. Its website may be eye-catching and its branding expensive (press conference attendees were each issued with a cotton bag that would not be an embarrassment on a shopping trip; a nice enough “I’m not being taken for a mug” Brexit mug; and a T-shirt that might find a function as DIY wear) but to a bored and sceptical media, the Banks operation can look amateurish (“Goddard Gunster “ was misspelled at the top of leave.eu’s press release this week), and it has yet to master the art of providing hacks with a quick easy hit. All this means he still appears to be on the back foot.
Yet there is another key player in this game: Farage. Some journalists were surprised to find the UKIP leader sitting (not entirely quietly) in the audience at leave.eu’s press conference this week. In theory, Farage supports both Elliott and Banks. Privately, he remains troubled by what he sees as a shortage of “real people” backing Elliott’s campaign. He believes that while Elliott’s outfit might win the official designation, it cannot win the referendum itself without leave.eu and the growing number of “punters” it represents. If the outcome of the referendum is what really matters to both camps, it is blindingly obvious that they should join forces – and fast. Too many egos are involved for this to happen voluntarily.
Much time has already been wasted on the power struggle. Farage should now be kingmaker. The chattering classes may consider him damaged goods but, beyond SW1, the UKIP leader has far more than a cult following. An official Brexit campaign that did not enjoy his party’s support would be a farce. The sooner he knocks heads together, the sooner all concerned can get on with fighting their real enemy – the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.