Arron Banks. Image, BBC, fair use.
The Electoral Commission's announcement this week that it is investigating Arron Banks and his vast financial contributions to the Brexit campaign raises a number of questions I’ve been wondering about for a while.
The announcement comes on the back of a long-running investigation by openDemocracy and others into how the various Leave campaigns were funded, including Alastair Sloan and Iain Campbell’s thorough interrogation of all of the publicly available data about Leave donor Arron Banks’ wealth.
One of the main things the Commission says it’s looking into is whether all of this money really did come from Arron Banks and his company “Better for the Country Ltd” or whether, as they put it in their legalistic language, “any individual facilitated a transaction with a non-qualifying person”.
Better for the Country Ltd was founded in 2015. As Peter Geoghegan has pointed out, its board includes, alongside Banks himself, Andy Wigmore, Elizabeth Bilney and Alison Marshall. All of them were also trustees of Banks’ charity, the Love Saves the Day Foundation, which was recently wound up in the midst of an investigation by the Charity Commission – as exposed by Peter over at the Ferret.
But there’s an interesting detail in all of this. As I wrote this week, it's notable that by far the biggest donation for which Banks is being investigated didn’t come in the form of money.
According to information registered at the Electoral Commission, Banks’ company, Better for the Country Ltd, gave £2.4m to five different pro-Leave campaign groups. But what they don’t mention in the press release about their investigation is that just over £2m of this in fact came in the form of ‘non-cash’ donations. By far the biggest donation from the firm is £1.9m that it gave in the form of ‘non-cash’ to the anti-EU group Grassroots Out.
Normally, non-cash donations come with descriptions. Better for the Country Ltd also gave a few thousand pounds worth of ‘consultancy’ and ‘advertising’ to pro-Leave groups, for example. But this vast gift is only categorised in the official documents as ‘other’. £1.9 million worth of ‘other’.
Banks’ lawyers have previously said to openDemocracy that this came in the form of “merchandise, leaflets, billboards, pens, badges and other paraphernalia for Grassroots Out Ltd. The donation also included arranging a tour of ten rallies around the country”.
I asked this week why a donor would pay a campaign through a front company and in the form of paraphernalia, rather than cash? We have not yet had a satisfactory answer.
But here’s a different question: what company provided all of this paraphernalia?
In other words, on the principle of ‘follow the money’, if Banks claims that the cash went from him, to his company Better for the Country Limited, to a supplier (or suppliers), and then, in the form of campaign merchandise, to the various pro-Brexit groups, who were the suppliers?
I asked the Electoral Commission if they collect this information when they record non-cash donations. They don’t.
So we don’t know.
But we do know which firm was used for many of these sorts of things when the two biggest of these groups, Grassroots out and UKIP, bought these things themselves. It’s the same company that was used by a number of the other pro-Brexit campaigns, including the official Vote Leave group, and the DUP.
A Soopa Doopa mystery
Soopa Doopa's registered address in Ely.
At the heart of the Brexit campaign for all of these organisations is the Ely-based branding company called Soopa Doopa.
Back in June, Peter Geoghegan and I highlighted Soopa Doopa, which, was founded in 2012 and, according to the judges of East Cambridgeshire Business Awards, saw its turnover grow from £750,000 in 2014-2015 to £2.1 million in 2015-2016. Around £800,000 of that growth is accounted for in spending recorded in the Electoral Commission database – the merchandise that the various Leave campaigns bought through them.
I went to Ely to visit the firm. What surprised me was that every address I could find recorded in any official document for it ended up at a dead end. As I wrote at the time:
“First, we went to the address listed for the firm on the Companies House website – and that turned out to be a chartered accountants, who confirmed that they were registered there. Then, we popped down to another address that’s listed in public documents as theirs. It was a house in the centre of town, between a Chinese and an Indian take-away. Someone drew the curtains when we knocked. Finally, we went to the current address listed on both their website and with the Electoral Commission.
“It was on the edge of town, at the end of a terrace row, and it appeared to be empty.”
Soopa Doopa is owned by Jake Scott-Paul, who has been public about his support for Brexit, and, in June, counted among his 142 Twitter followers senior members of the Leave movement including the Batman and Robin of Brexit – the men behind Better for the Country Ltd – Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore.
Back in June, Peter and I asked how so many Leave campaigns all stumbled upon the same obscure branding company in Ely, if they weren't co-ordinating in other ways that they ought to have declared to the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission announcement this week means that there are other pertinent questions. Was Soopa Doopa also paid by Arron Banks' Better for the Country Ltd to provide materials for its various client-campaigns? And did all of the cash come from Banks’ firm? Or was someone else chipping in too?
There is no evidence that Soopa Doopa has engaged in any wrongdoing, and we put have put these questions to them. They have so far declined to respond.