Consider the following paragraph:
‘Though Nigel Farage is the face of Brexit, Arron Banks is the man who made it possible. He bought Brexit. Or at least paid for it. Until 2014 he was an unknown Bristol businessman. Now he’s the biggest political donor in British political history. The most powerful. He put more money into funding the Leave campaign than anyone else – more than £7m. He donated his office space, his computer equipment, his senior staff. He’s the co-founder of Leave.EU, the so-called “provisional wing” of the Leave campaign.’
Sounds impressive. Indeed, it’s meant to – Carole Cadwalladr was interviewing Banks for The Observer, and had every interest in talking up the towering importance of her interviewee. Unfortunately, while she carefully selected her facts and wording, the account doesn’t quite match reality.
Banks spent several million pounds on Leave.EU, the campaign that he set up in the hope of leading the push for Brexit. The amounts involved aren’t entirely clear – sometimes people assume the totals cited by Leave.EU to all have come from him alone, when in fact the campaign also received £3.2 million from Peter Hargreaves and various other donations. If the £7 million figure is accurate, then Banks would indeed have been the biggest individual donor in the multiplicity of pro-Leave groups. But it still wouldn’t be the case that he was “funding the Leave campaign” – he was funding his personal Leave campaign, not the actual, official Leave campaign. Indeed, a decent portion of his time and effort was spent attacking the real campaign, Vote Leave.
That blurring of Leave.EU with “the Leave campaign” isn’t the only somewhat misleading claim in Cadwalladr’s gushing introduction. Is Banks really “the man who made [Brexit] possible”? Is it true to say “he bought Brexit”? No.
For a start, the very reason Banks was so keen to secure designation of Leave.EU as the official Leave campaign was that the official campaign had massively higher spending limits than other registered participants – ten times higher, at £7 million, compared to £700,000. He was not allowed, during the campaign itself, to spend anywhere near as much as he would have liked – making “buying Brexit” rather difficult to do.
To leap to these conclusions, Cadwalladr appears to have totted up the amounts of money and concluded that spending a lot equals victory. But that, too, is untrue. If it was the case, then Remain would have won – overall, pro-EU campaigners spent £19,070,566 to Leave campaigners’ £13,436,241, and the Government spent an additional £9 million on promoting EU membership. It’s self-evidently not the case that how much you spend matters more than how you spend it. And Leave.EU’s work left plenty to be desired: the repeated but abortive attempts to organise a strange pop concert, teaming up with George Galloway, putting out graphics joking about rape, targeting adverts at National Front supporters, and so on.
At the same time, Vote Leave deployed more people and more material on the ground, set the national debate in the media, and led all but one of the televised referendum debates. Even more importantly, it was using these channels to deliver messages that actually worked to convince people to support leaving the EU, communicating the effective triple offer of taking back control of our laws, our money and our borders, while Leave.EU clumsily tried to link the Orlando terrorist attack to the referendum.
At its best, Leave.EU worked to increase turnout among already convinced Leave supporters. At its worst, it blundered about, saying things which made its base feel good but confirming the darkest fears about Leave in the minds of undecided voters. Neither equates to making Brexit happen. Had Leave.EU been the officially designated campaign, it would likely have lost the referendum – and even from its more limited platform as a registered participant it came close, at times, to costing us the chance to escape the EU.
Given that it’s meant to be the job of newspapers to inform their readers, one would be entitled to wonder why Cadwalladr presents a version of events which do not match reality. As I’ve already mentioned, The Observer is understandably interested in hyping up its interviewee – “he spent a lot of money, but not very effectively” would be a less exciting introduction. But it also has a political interest in establishing an alliance of convenience with Banks.
Both the multi-millionaire Leave supporter and the Remain-backing newspaper want Brexit to be all about Banks.
He wants this because it fulfils his desire to make the establishment “know who I am”, a wish stirred when William Hague dismissed news of his donation to UKIP in 2014, and to give some weight to his attempts to found a new political movement to “clear out” Westminster.
The Observer wants this because Banks embodies all of what it would like Brexit to represent – namely, a British version of Trumpism – but also because his habit of implying he managed to secure victory by pushing “the boundary of everything, right to the edge” plays into its wishful thinking that the Leave vote was somehow unfairly achieved and therefore doesn’t really count, as Tim Mongtomerie has noted. Cadwalladr’s previous interview with Andy Wigmore, Banks’s sidekick, has already generated an attempt by those who want the Leave vote overturned to spark a new Electoral Commission investigation into campaign spending (in response, Leave.EU denies any wrongdoing).
If this odd couple succeed in promoting their preferred narrative, then Banks gets to claim he made Brexit happen, and The Observer gets to imply that Brexit is, at its heart, illegitimate. Both appear happy to make that bargain, but everybody else should see it for what it is and reject it.