The offices of Soopa Doopa branding. Credit: Adam Ramsay.We didn’t expect to end up in a suburban street in Ely. But then, we didn’t expect to find a Saudi prince or a Danish ‘private banker’ embroiled in the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit dark money. We didn’t expect a connection with a Bengali gun-running incident. Or that the Tories would end up relying on the DUP to secure a wobbly majority. So a quiet corner of Cambridgeshire was hardly the biggest shock.
Each of the different campaigns to leave the EU was meant to be a separate organisation.
We went to Ely to find out more about Brexit, and how it was bankrolled. You see, each of the different campaigns to leave the EU was meant to be a separate organisation. You can’t simply set up a new front every time your current one is approaching its spending limit. And we know they are all different. The two main ones - Vote Leave and Leave.EU - had a massive fight, that was reported all over the media. And the DUP has been very clear with us that there was no co-ordination between their campaign and the others.
But what’s also true is that all these different campaigns used the same obscure branding agency. Over the course of the final few weeks of the referendum, the Electoral Commission Website tells us, Arron Banks’ Leave.EU, the official Vote Leave campaign, Grassroots Out, Ukip and the Democratic Unionist Party collectively spent over £800,000 with Soopa Doopa, a branding agency based, you guessed it, in the tiny Cambridgeshire city of Ely.
As part of their Brexit campaign, the DUP spent almost £100,000 with Soopa Doopa, buying 15,000 Corex Boards, 5,000 bags, 100,000 window stickers, 7,000 t-shirts and 50,000 badges. On BBC Northern Ireland, the Stephen Nolan Show recently asked its listeners if they had seen any of the DUP branded Brexit material. openDemocracy did spot some of this, but not in Northern Ireland – in Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, Leave.EU spent £20,652.25 with Soopa Doopa, Grassroots Out £42,000, Ukip £18,000, and Vote Leave £637,108.80. In the whole of 2014-15, Soopa Doopa had a turnover of just three-quarters of a million pounds.
It’s been revealed before – partly by us, and partly by the excellent Carole Cadwalladr – that the various different Brexit campaigns all used the same obscure data analytics company: the Canadian firm Aggregate IQ. The campaigns dismissed this as coincidence. DUP’s campaign manager, Jeffrey Donaldson, told us he ‘couldn’t remember’ how he heard of them, despite spending more than £32,000 with the company.
So we decided to head to Ely, to find out what attracted the different Brexit campaigns to Soopa Doopa. 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. Nevertheless, Soopa Doopa Branding Ltd does exist. The company advertises itself as “specialists in the supply and manufacture of branded promotional products”, and its website advertises a whole range of products that you can get your logo on, through them.
When we rang the number on the site to ask if we could buy a DUP Leave campaign branded mug, the firm’s owner, Jake Scott-Paul, answered the phone. Scott-Paul seemed rather surprised when asked if this was Soopa Doopa branding, but confirmed that it was, and explained that the company itself doesn’t print things, but rather organises for their printing. And so they wouldn’t have a mug themselves: they don’t handle the actual products. He also confirmed that they had worked for the various Brexit campaigns, though claimed that “they were all one campaign”. When we asked him to clarify what he meant by that, he hung up.
Jake Scott-Paul has been public about his support for Brexit, and among his 142 Twitter followers are senior members of the Leave movement including Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore.
“Everything you need to know is in the public domain. Those organisations came to us during the referendum and we supplied merchandise to them. That’s all I have to say really,” Soopa Doopa told us when we called back a few weeks later.
Soopa Doopa was founded in 2012, and according to the website Sourcing City News, it won two major awards at the East Cambridgeshire Business Awards last year. As the website says:
“The judges recognised the substantial growth achieved by the company, made up of just two directors, Jake Scott-Paul and Gavin Lambert along with one part time member of staff having grown from a turnover of £750,000 in 2014-2105 to a massive £2.1 million in 2015-2016.” Nevertheless, Soopa Doopa is not on the British Promotional Merchandise Association’s list of distributors.
Jake Scott-Paul has been public about his support for Brexit, and among his 142 Twitter followers are senior members of the Leave movement including Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore. During the campaign, Soopa Doopa’s account retweeted prominent Leave supporters, including newly promoted Brexit minister Steve Baker, showing their merchandise.
There is no suggestion that the firm did anything wrong in working for the various different leave campaigns. But what is worth asking is this: how did all of the different Leave campaigns stumble upon the same obscure branding agency in Ely?
Under UK electoral rules, campaigners are not allowed to agree to work together unless part of a joint campaign. But the rules are less than clear cut. Discussions with other campaigners that do not involve decision making or coordinating your plans are OK, but agreeing which areas or voters to target is not. What you definitely cannot do is agree how to co-ordinate your spending with another campaigner.
“Using the same supplier for goods or services does not necessarily mean ‘working together’ is taking place. Working together is taken to be occurring when two or more campaigners have a common plan or arrangement,” the Electoral Commission said.
In public, Vote Leave and Leave.EU were frequently at loggerheads, often accusing one another of undermining the Brexit cause. But the pattern of spending by the rival Brexit camps displays a marked level of similarity, with both camps spending millions of pounds with the same firms, some of whom – like Aggregate IQ and Soopa Doopa – are hardly household names.
Of course, one possible explanation might have been that these firms pitched their services to the campaigns, rather than the other way around. So we rang Soopa Doopa again to ask them how they got all this business, and they were clear that this isn’t what happened. As they said, before hanging up again:
"Everything you need to know is in the public domain. Those organisations came to us during the referendum and we supplied merchandise to them. That's all I have to say really.”
Over a year on from the Brexit result, serious questions are still being raised about referendum campaign spending. Perhaps it’s time the different Brexit campaigns explained how they spent their money, and where it all came from?
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