British businessman Arron Banks has courted controversy for years with his outspoken views, generous political donations and passionate support for U.S. President Donald Trump. But Mr. Banks’ role in the Brexit referendum campaign two years ago has landed the insurance tycoon in a pair of scandals including allegations he met with Russian officials during the referendum campaign.
On Tuesday, Mr. Banks hit back at suggestions Russia interfered with the referendum. He lashed out at politicians, the media and Chris Wylie, the Canadian whistle-blower at the centre of the controversy surrounding U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica and its use of personal data from more than 80 million Facebook accounts during the U.S. presidential election campaign. Mr. Wylie also alleged that Facebook data was used during the Brexit referendum by the Leave campaign to target voters with controversial ads.
“I’d like to think I’m an evil genius with a white cap who controls all of democracy, but clearly that’s not true,” Mr. Banks told a House of Commons’ committee investigating fake news.
Mr. Banks was the biggest financial backer of the pro-Brexit side during the 2016 referendum, contributing £9.4-million, or $16-million, to a group called Leave.EU that was led by Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party. Last week, e-mails surfaced in British newspapers indicating that Mr. Banks and Leave.EU’s former communications manager, Andrew Wigmore, met Russian officials several times between 2015 and 2017. The e-mails also showed that Mr. Banks discussed a potential investment in a Russian gold mining venture with a Russian businessman.
On Tuesday, Mr. Banks and Mr. Wigmore rejected allegations of Russian interference and improper use of Facebook data, and criticized Mr. Wylie, who worked at Cambridge Analytica along with another whistle-blower, Brittany Kaiser. “It all really comes from two witnesses that really do lack credibility,” he said, adding that Leave.EU did not hire Cambridge Analytica. During several testy exchanges, Mr. Banks also called some of the MPs’ questions “disgraceful” and suggested that none of the committee members backed Brexit, which is why they were engaging in a “Russian witch hunt”
“Parliament itself is the biggest source of fake news in the country,” he added.
Both men also defended Leave.EU’s political tactics during the referendum, which included focusing largely on immigration control as a reason for Britain to leave the EU. The group’s ads were seen by many as divisive and fear mongering. Mr. Wigmore described his role during the referendum as an “agent provocateur” who made fun of people to get attention. “If you are trying to sell something or put a good case over to somebody, you will tell the best story,” he said. “If that’s provocation or a lie, if you want to call it that, yeah.”
Mr. Banks told the committee that the pair met Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to the U.K., twice for lunch and held another meeting with a Russian businessman to talk about the gold mining project. He added that nothing substantive was discussed during the meetings and that the second lunch came after the two men had met Mr. Trump in New York in the wake of his election victory in November, 2016. The only information they gave the ambassador was the phone number for the Trump transition team, Mr. Banks said. As for the gold mining project, Mr. Banks said he checked it out and decided not to invest. Mr. Banks said he had no Russian holdings and added that his only connection to the country was through his wife, who is Russian. His three children are also dual citizens, he added.
The hearing came as MPs began a series of key votes Tuesday on the government’s main Brexit legislation. The law would incorporate all EU laws into British laws, paving the way for the U.K. to pick and choose which laws to keep or amend. However, the House of Lords has passed 15 amendments to the legislation that would weaken the Brexit process by keeping the U.K. within the EU’s customs union and give parliament more of a say over the final arrangement with the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government has moved to overturn the amendments but the Tories don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. There have been suggestions that several Conservatives who don’t support a hard Brexit would vote to keep the Lords’ amendments. They included Phillip Lee, a junior justice minister who resigned on Tuesday to support the Tory rebels. Ms. May and other senior cabinet ministers spent much of the week rallying caucus members and by Tuesday evening the government had won the first round of votes.