Dark Money Investigations

Revealed: Arron Banks Brexit campaign's 'secret' meetings with Cambridge Analytica

Leaked emails show Leave.EU misled parliament and UK regulator about meetings with controversial Trump-linked firm – where they discussed targeting British voters. Steve Bannon was included in correspondence.

Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
Peter Geoghegan Jenna Corderoy
19 December 2018


Cambridge Analytica/SCL's Alexander Nix. Image, Sam Barnes. CC2.0

Arron Banks’s Brexit campaign discussed ‘micro-targeting’ British voters during previously undisclosed meetings with Cambridge Analytica, openDemocracy can reveal, raising fresh concerns about ‘psychographic warfare technology’ used to target voters in the run up to the 2016 EU referendum.

Leave.EU told the UK Information Commissioner’s Office that it held only four meetings with Cambridge Analytica. Earlier this year, Banks also claimed to MPs that his Leave.EU campaign only “had two or three meetings” with Cambridge Analytica and had never paid the data analytics firms for any work.

But emails obtained by openDemocracy suggest that Banks’s Brexit campaign had additional meetings with the controversial data analytics firm, which they did not disclose either to parliament or to the information regulator, and in which they discussed in detail how to target British voters.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was included in some of the email correspondence seen by openDemocracy, as was a former UKIP party secretary linked to Robert Mercer, the Trump-supporting hedge fund billionaire who controlled Cambridge Analytica.

Topics discussed at these meetings included fundraising for Leave.EU and how to build sophisticated target audiences for pro-Brexit adverts on Facebook, similar to those used by the Trump campaign.

In evidence presented to the Information Commissioner, Leave.EU said that its final meeting with Cambridge Analytica took place on January 8 2016. But later that month, an email seen by openDemocracy discussed Banks’s campaign “using [Cambridge Analytica] and staging the contract.”

Damian Collins, chair of the UK parliament’s fake news inquiry, said: “I can’t think of any sort of relationship between a supplier and an organisation which would involve so many meetings over such a long time which neither side regards as working together, and which neither expect to get paid for it, and both sides seem so adamant in denying.”

Data protection expert Paul-Olivier Dehaye said that the email exchanges suggested that Leave.EU had “used psychographic warfare technology” to target voters based on psychological traits across a range of social media in the run-up to the Brexit vote.

The undisclosed meetings raise fresh questions about Banks’s Brexit campaign. The National Crime Agency is currently investigating whether Banks is the “true source” of more than £8m worth of donations made in his name to Leave groups.

Cambridge Analytica was closed down earlier this year after being accused of harvesting data from of tens of millions of Facebook users’ data and employing “black ops” to influence elections around the world. openDemocracy last month revealed that Banks’s Leave.EU operation built up a database of tens of millions of UK voters ahead of the 2016 referendum.

Undisclosed meetings – and ‘Target Audience Analysis’

Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica held an introductory meeting on October 23 2015. The final meeting between the two camps took place on January 8 2016, according to a recent ICO report that found “no evidence of a working relationship between CA and Leave.EU proceeding beyond this initial phase.”

But there were additional meetings between Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU that were not disclosed to the information regulator.

On October 30, 2015 a Cambridge Analytica staffer sent an email saying that “two members of your data team will be at our offices for an exchange session on Tuesday”. Among the email’s recipients were Arron Banks, his associate Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU chief Liz Bilney, Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix and Steve Bannon.

On December 5 2015, Julian Wheatland, then chief operating officer of Cambridge Analytica’s UK parent company SCL group, wrote to Leave.EU’s chief Liz Bilney saying “thanks for coming in to see us yesterday.”

Wheatland says that Cambridge Analytica will conduct Target Audience Analysis (TAA) on behalf Leave.EU. TAA involves the identifying groups that exist in society, and targeting messages that resonate with them. Unlike traditional advertising, the key in TAA is that individuals self-identify their psychological traits, often through their online behaviour, says data expert Paul-Olivier Dehaye.

SCL and Cambridge Analytica were involved in TAA everywhere from Afghanistan to the successful 2016 Trump campaign.

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Wheatland told Leave.EU CEO Bilney that Cambridge Analytica company would “start digital outreach and a program of voter engagement and fundraising,” primarily on Facebook.

“[F]ollowing our discussion yesterday on the way you are using Facebook… it occured to me that you may like us to take over you (sic) current list-building activity in the interim,” Wheatland wrote.

The email also suggests a meeting was due to take place “with Arron (Banks) on Tuesday”. The following Tuesday was December 8 2015.

These were not the only proposed meetings discussed by Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica staff not disclosed to the Information Commissioner.

‘Staging the contract’

On January 25 2016, Matthew Richardson, a lawyer and former UKIP party secretary with links to the Mercers, wrote to Wheatland saying that Banks and Wigmore have asked “if they can reschedule for Friday”. Steve Bannon is also included in this email.

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Richardson, a former executive director of the rightwing Young Britons Foundation, has been cited as the person who introduced Leave.EU to Cambridge Analytica. According to the Guardian, Andy Wigmore said: “We had a guy called Matthew Richardson who’d known Nigel for a long time and he’s always looked after the Mercers”.

Richardson also suggests that Leave.EU intended to hire Cambridge Analytica. “[Banks and Wigmore] would like to talk about using the service and staging the contract, so that the bulk of it is done after the Electoral Commission designation,” he wrote.

Banks and Wigmore have previously said that Leave.EU decided not to hire Cambridge Analytica and that only preliminary work was done, for free. Wigmore told the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr that the Mercers – who backed Trump and controlled Cambridge Analytica – had been “happy to help” Leave.EU.

There are hints of further meetings, too. On December 17, Leave.EU’s head of research Pierre Shepherd wrote to Cambridge Analytica staff asking “do you still plan to come next week?”. There was no record of a meeting around this time in the evidence given by Leave.EU to the Information Commissioner.

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The UKIP connection

Earlier this year, Brittany Kaiser, former Cambridge Analytica’s business development director, said the work with Leave.EU involved analysis of data provided by UKIP. Banks has denied this.

Emails seen by openDemocracy suggest Cambridge Analytica sought to access raw data about UKIP supporters collected by academics. On October 29 2015, a Cambridge Analytica staffer wrote to Matthew Richardson asking “if you can connect us to Matthew Goodwin, who is the academic that conducted the referendum survey with your members? He should have the raw data from that, which will be very helpful for us."

A few minutes later Richardson replied: "I have already spoken to Matt Goodwin and the data is incoming."

Goodwin told openDemocracy that the data referred to in this exchange was a UKIP membership survey included in a co-authored academic book. “To my knowledge this [data] was never shared although a presentation was given to the party, multiple academic conferences and then published in the book,” Goodwin said.

Separately, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued an information notice against UKIP for failing to hand over details of use of data analytics during the Brexit referendum.

‘Questions that now need answering’

Commenting on openDemocracy’s latest revelations, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “Once again it seems the Leave campaign has not been open about its activities, in this case the extent of its contacts with Cambridge Analytica.

“This strengthens the argument for the UK to have our own Mueller style judicial inquiry to examine and get to the bottom of all the allegations that have dogged pro Brexit campaigners.”

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake said: “The evidence points very clearly to much more frequent contact between Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU than has been admitted.

“The question that now needs answering is ‘why have the contacts between CA and Leave.EU been under-reported and what do they have to hide? This affair gets murkier and murkier, casting yet more doubt over the validity of the referendum result.”

Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore have so far not responded to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

Update, 24 September 2019: The National Crime Agency has found no evidence that Arron Banks, Elizabeth Bilney, Better for the Country Ltd or Leave.EU committed a crime under electoral or company law. Its investigation related to a referral from the Electoral Commission on 1 November 2018. For more information see the NCA statement here.

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