Arron Banks at the Fake News Inquiry. Image, Parliament.tv, fair use
In many ways, Arron Banks’s appearance today to answer MPs’ questions was in keeping with character. By turns the biggest donor in British political history was garrulous, boastful and contemptuous. And, after three hours – when he and his wingman Andy Wigmore walked out, ostensibly to keep “a luncheon appointment” with two DUP MPs – Banks had generated far more heat than light.
What we found out
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s questions covered everything from Leave.EU’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica to Banks’s own dealings with Russia. But there was one area that Banks seemed particularly keen not to talk about.
Just before he spent more than £8m on Brexit, his Southern Rock insurance firm was in financial trouble, and got a £77m bail-out from the Isle of Man-based ICS Risk Solutions. When MP Rebecca Pow asked about this cash injection, Banks implied that this was simply him shuffling money between two companies he owns, and accused them of trying “to create some shadiness around my businesses".
However, our friends at SourceMaterial have pointed out that Banks doesn’t actually own all of ICS Risk Solutions, but only somewhere between 50% & 75%, according to filings of one of its subsidiaries at Companies House. Who owns the rest of the company? We don’t know.
But around the time ICS was bailing out Southern Rock, the wife of one of Banks’s associates joined the ICS board. This associate has been accused of breaching money laundering rules in Jersey, Malta and Gibraltar. The following year, the day after the Brexit vote, he joined the ICS board himself, along with two of his close business partners.
However this associate was involved, Banks wasn’t just shuffling around his own money. ICS has at least one unknown owner, who helped prop-up Banks’s ailing insurance empire just as he was pouring cash into Brexit.
‘Insurance Millionaire?’ What we missed
The key question hanging over the Commons committee today but never directly asked: what is Arron Banks actually worth?
Figuring out the value of Banks’s wealth is tricky. In media reports the Leave.EU backer is frequently referred to as a ‘millionaire businessman’. Published estimates of his worth vary from £100m to £250m.
But a major openDemocracy investigation last year raised serious questions about the true extent of Banks’s wealth, particularly in the insurance businesses that are frequently held up as the main source of his fortune.
Banks became a major political donor overnight, in November 2014. Previously he had been a virtual unknown – a one-time estate agent who had moved into insurance, and had failed to be selected as a Conservative local election candidate. Then he promised £1m to Ukip apparently after William Hague described him as ‘a Mr Nobody’.
The million pounds to Ukip never fully materialised – Banks drip fed the party around £400,000 in cash installments over six months, mostly in the name of his companies – but the self-styled ‘Bad Boy of Brexit’ was in the game. Then he plunged an eye-watering £8m into campaigning to leave the European Union.
But at the very moment Banks was pouring millions into Brexit, his insurance companies were in fact in real financial difficulty. Authorities in London and Gibraltar found that Banks’s insurance underwriter, Gibraltar-based Southern Rock, had been trading without sufficient reserves.
Banks has maintained that his insurance business is in rude health. Last October he boasted that he was in line to make millions of pounds from floating Eldon Insurance - which uses the brand Go Skippy – on the London Stock Exchange in early 2018. So far this has not happened.
Insurance isn’t Banks’s only business interest. In his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit – ghost written by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott – Banks says that in 2015 he decided to spend millions of pounds on influencing British politics because “my businesses in this country and overseas, where I own a number of diamond mines, were doing really well.”
Reports over the weekend suggested that Banks had conversations with Russian officials about potential investments in gold mines. (The ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ is peppered with references from Banks to wanting to invest in gold.) So maybe all the money came from minerals?
We know that by February 2015, Banks was the owner of four diamond mines in South Africa. But there is little sign that any of these holdings are lucrative. There has been no report of major finds in Banks’s South African mines.
Not so for Banks’s Lesotho holdings. In September 2017, the Ukip backer announced a “significant find” in this mountainous Southern African kingdom. Newspaper reports at the time suggested that he was poised to use the windfall to bankroll a new political party for his friend Nigel Farage.
But another recent openDemocracy investigation cast major doubt on these claims. We found that the area of the “significant find” in Lesotho had produced only a few hundred pounds’ worth of diamonds in the two decades before Banks bought it. A leading expert on Lesotho diamonds told us that it was “geologically impossible” to find commercial quantities of diamonds in the mine.
That’s not all. When we looked into Banks’s business dealings in Lesotho we found even more surprising things. We found that a political consultancy owned by Banks – Chartwell – had been advising a local political party called the Basotho National Party (BNP) that Banks had business links to.
Rather than the Lesotho party paying Chartwell for its advice, we discovered that Banks was actually transferring money to the BNP: at least £65,000, a significant sum in one of the poorest and smallest countries in Southern Africa. Chartwell has never recorded a profit.
Much has been made of Banks’s links to Russia. His wife is Russian. On social media, he often speaks positively of Vladimir Putin and his post-Brexit news site Westmonster often carries coverage that chimes with dominant Russian worldviews.
Banks has denied receiving any funding from Russia, accusing the Remain campaign of trying to discredit everyone involved in Brexit. He previously claimed that he’d just had one lunch with the Russian ambassador, but reports this weekend showed that he had at least “two boozy lunches” and another cup of tea.
But we have found some other links between Banks and Russia. Just two months after the referendum, another Banks associate James Pryor— a Brexit ‘bad boy’ and former campaign manager to Ukip — was in Moscow, a Red Square selfie from his Facebook feed shows. During the hearing, Wigmore said that it was Pryor, “the happy hippy” who had introduced him to Banks.
Yesterday, Pryor told openDemocracy that his trip wasn’t connected to Banks’ activities: “I have other clients”, he said, and denied any wrongdoing.
For almost a year, openDemocracy has been looking into where Arron Banks – the biggest political donor in British history – got his money from. This morning, we pointed out that £11m of donations to the two main Brexit campaigns he’s associated with are unaccounted for: we don’t know how it was spent.
After nearly three hours of watching Banks and Wigmore in front of a parliamentary committee today, we still have more questions than answers about the ‘Bad Boy of Brexit’.