Loathing On The Campaign Trail
Arron Banks’s Brexit diary is a score-settling exercise, attacking everyone he fell out with during the campaign
The Bad Boys of Brexit is a fake. Arron Banks, self-described as a “boisterous Bristol-based insurance tycoon, diamond mine owner, philanthropist and man of the people”, first came to public view when during the 2014 Conservative party conference he announced that he would be donating £100,000 to UKIP. The then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, replied that he had never heard of him. Banks’s response was to increase his donation to £1 million.
After the 2015 general election — when Nigel Farage failed to win the seat of Thanet South and UKIP did not break through in spite of (some would argue because of) Banks’s active support and involvement in the campaign — Banks decided that he was the man to win the coming EU referendum battle. By his own account he poured £6.5 million of his own money into the campaign. The figure is difficult to verify, as much of it was given and spent before the period when campaigners had to declare their donations and £3.5 million of it was given in the form of a loan, albeit in all probability an unrecoverable one. His campaign, first called The Know and then Leave.EU, planned to make immigration the core issue of referendum and use Nigel Farage as its figurehead.
Other campaigners for Brexit, however, thought that giving Farage a leading role in the campaign could be fatal to their cause. Vote Leave, run by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings and backed by the leading Tory Brexiteers as well as UKIP’s sole MP Douglas Carswell, eventually gained designation as the official campaign over the group favoured by Banks. The Bad Boys of Brexit is a score-settling exercise by Banks, attacking in the crudest terms all those, nearly all on the Leave side, with whom he fell out during the campaign.
Banks says that Bad Boys “is my diary of our adventures”. It is no such thing. A diary is, by most definitions, a contemporaneous account of events happening that day or at the least in the few preceding days. Bad Boys was cobbled together after the event from Banks’s emails, Twitter feed and text messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott. She is the former Sunday Times political editor best known for bringing about the downfall of Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his then wife and her source, Vicky Pryce, and for co-authoring a biography of David Cameron with Michael Ashcroft which made now notorious and unsubstantiated claims about the former Prime Minister’s alleged university high jinks.
Oakeshott writes in the acknowledgements, “Arron’s diary was researched and written in ten weeks, a near-impossible time frame. I was only able to meet the deadline by drafting in several researchers.” Not the way a diary is usually written, I should have thought.
While writing our own book on the referendum campaign, Brexit Revolt: How the UK Voted to Leave the EU, my Standpoint colleague Oliver Wiseman and I had access to much of the email exchange between Banks and his Vote Leave rivals. Bad Boys does fairly capture the flavour of these exchanges — indeed, much of the diary is lifted straight from these emails. But Banks’s judgments all enjoy the benefits of hindsight. They cannot be relied on as an insight into his thinking at the time.
What Bad Boys does reveal is that Farage, far from being the hothead he is usually portrayed as, actually tried his best to rein in the worst excesses of Banks and Leave.EU. When the BBC announced, after Vote Leave had not put him forward, that Farage would not be featuring in their main referendum debate, Banks decided to publish the personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers of Elliott, Cummings, Carswell and Vote Leave’s head of press Robert Oxley, along with those of BBC producer Robbie Gibb, and invite UKIP supporters to tell them what they thought of the decision. Farage was furious at this and the offending posts were, eventually, taken down.
Other than Farage and Banks’s inner coterie, everyone comes out badly in Bad Boys. It is not only Vote Leave’s leading lights who are relentlessly pilloried. Banks gives the same treatment to his own sometime allies, including Tory MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove. Those who I have spoken to who appear in Bad Boys have very different recollections of events from those recounted in the book.
The Vote Leave campaign, as we show in Brexit Revolt, was not the genius operation that Elliott and Cummings now claim. If Banks had had his way and had been allowed to mastermind the Brexit campaign, Bad Boys demonstrates that the outcome would have been disastrous. This is not so much because of the messages that he would have emphasised or how divisive the campaign would have been — although this would have been a factor — but the transparent inability of Banks to work in alliance with anyone else.
Still, Bad Boys is an entertaining book — if you have a taste for 300 pages of personal abuse.