The terrible truth about Banks and Cadwalladr. They need each other.

13 Jun

Paul Goodman writes: Arron Banks, the former UKIP donor, has lost his libel case against Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist.  The definitive article on the relationship between these best of enemies was written by Mark Wallace on ConservativeHome.

Mark wrote in the wake of a Cadwalladr interview with Banks for the Observer.  The piece was called “Arron Banks and The Observer have a shared interest in making Brexit all about him.” Here it is below.

Consider the following paragraph:

‘Though Nigel Farage is the face of Brexit, Arron Banks is the man who made it possible. He bought Brexit. Or at least paid for it. Until 2014 he was an unknown Bristol businessman. Now he’s the biggest political donor in British political history. The most powerful. He put more money into funding the Leave campaign than anyone else – more than £7m. He donated his office space, his computer equipment, his senior staff. He’s the co-founder of Leave.EU, the so-called “provisional wing” of the Leave campaign.’

Sounds impressive. Indeed, it’s meant to – Carole Cadwalladr was interviewing Banks for The Observer, and had every interest in talking up the towering importance of her interviewee. Unfortunately, while she carefully selected her facts and wording, the account doesn’t quite match reality.

Sounds impressive. Indeed, it’s meant to – Carole Cadwalladr was interviewing Banks for The Observer, and had every interest in talking up the towering importance of her interviewee. Unfortunately, while she carefully selected her facts and wording, the account doesn’t quite match reality.

Banks spent several million pounds on Leave.EU, the campaign that he set up in the hope of leading the push for Brexit. The amounts involved aren’t entirely clear – sometimes people assume the totals cited by Leave.EU to all have come from him alone, when in fact the campaign also received £3.2 million from Peter Hargreaves and various other donations. If the £7 million figure is accurate, then Banks would indeed have been the biggest individual donor in the multiplicity of pro-Leave groups. But it still wouldn’t be the case that he was “funding the Leave campaign” – he was funding his personal Leave campaign, not the actual, official Leave campaign. Indeed, a decent portion of his time and effort was spent attacking the real campaign, Vote Leave.

That blurring of Leave.EU with “the Leave campaign” isn’t the only somewhat misleading claim in Cadwalladr’s gushing introduction. Is Banks really “the man who made [Brexit] possible”? Is it true to say “he bought Brexit”? No.

For a start, the very reason Banks was so keen to secure designation of Leave.EU as the official Leave campaign was that the official campaign had massively higher spending limits than other registered participants – ten times higher, at £7 million, compared to £700,000. He was not allowed, during the campaign itself, to spend anywhere near as much as he would have liked – making “buying Brexit” rather difficult to do.

To leap to these conclusions, Cadwalladr appears to have totted up the amounts of money and concluded that spending a lot equals victory. But that, too, is untrue. If it was the case, then Remain would have won – overall, pro-EU campaigners spent £19,070,566 to Leave campaigners’ £13,436,241, and the Government spent an additional £9 million on promoting EU membership. It’s self-evidently not the case that how much you spend matters more than how you spend it. And Leave.EU’s work left plenty to be desired: the repeated but abortive attempts to organise a strange pop concert, teaming up with George Galloway, putting out graphics joking about rape, targeting adverts at National Front supporters, and so on.

At the same time, Vote Leave deployed more people and more material on the ground, set the national debate in the media, and led all but one of the televised referendum debates. Even more importantly, it was using these channels to deliver messages that actually worked to convince people to support leaving the EU, communicating the effective triple offer of taking back control of our laws, our money and our borders, while Leave.EU clumsily tried to link the Orlando terrorist attack to the referendum.

At its best, Leave.EU worked to increase turnout among already convinced Leave supporters. At its worst, it blundered about, saying things which made its base feel good but confirming the darkest fears about Leave in the minds of undecided voters. Neither equates to making Brexit happen. Had Leave.EU been the officially designated campaign, it would likely have lost the referendum – and even from its more limited platform as a registered participant it came close, at times, to costing us the chance to escape the EU.

Given that it’s meant to be the job of newspapers to inform their readers, one would be entitled to wonder why Cadwalladr presents a version of events which do not match reality. As I’ve already mentioned, The Observer is understandably interested in hyping up its interviewee – “he spent a lot of money, but not very effectively” would be a less exciting introduction. But it also has a political interest in establishing an alliance of convenience with Banks.

Both the multi-millionaire Leave supporter and the Remain-backing newspaper want Brexit to be all about Banks.

He wants this because it fulfils his desire to make the establishment “know who I am”, a wish stirred when William Hague dismissed news of his donation to UKIP in 2014, and to give some weight to his attempts to found a new political movement to “clear out” Westminster.

The Observer wants this because Banks embodies all of what it would like Brexit to represent – namely, a British version of Trumpism –  but also because his habit of implying he managed to secure victory by pushing “the boundary of everything, right to the edge” plays into its wishful thinking that the Leave vote was somehow unfairly achieved and therefore doesn’t really count, as Tim Mongtomerie has noted.

adwalladr’s previous interview with Andy Wigmore, Banks’s sidekick, has already generated an attempt by those who want the Leave vote overturned to spark a new Electoral Commission investigation into campaign spending (in response, Leave.EU denies any wrongdoing).

If this odd couple succeed in promoting their preferred narrative, then Banks gets to claim he made Brexit happen, and The Observer gets to imply that Brexit is, at its heart, illegitimate. Both appear happy to make that bargain, but everybody else should see it for what it is and reject it.

The post The terrible truth about Banks and Cadwalladr. They need each other. first appeared on Conservative Home.

Whatever you think of Johnson’s flat, the Electoral Commission’s record on investigations is shockingly bad

29 Apr

The Downing Street story about Boris Johnson’s flat, and the leaks coming out of Number 10, continue to dominate the headlines, with the latest news being that the Electoral Commission (EC) will investigate the Prime Minister’s renovations. The EC has said it has “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Across the media/ Twittersphere, you could practically hear the gasps as this was announced. The investigation alone seems to be taken as evidence of serious wrongdoing on Johnson’s part, with the EC presented as the great arbiter of political conduct. But are people’s memories really so short? Whatever one’s view of Johnson and his flat, it was extraordinary to see the EC elevated to such high status.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that the EC was convinced another political offence had taken place – only to be proven completely wrong. Following the Brexit referendum (in which the most militant Remainers wanted someone or something to blame for the result), the EC obsessively pursued Darren Grimes, whom it accused of breaching spending rules as part of a pro-Leave organisation, and tried to fine £20,000. 

Grimes appealed the commission’s decision and the High Court found in his favour, warning that even if an offence had been committed, it would not have warranted the maximum fine. It was ridiculous that the case even got to court, and the EC put Grimes through hell. But still it could only say it was “disappointed” by the verdict.

In another dire moment for the EC, it pursued Arron Banks, whom commissioners suspected was not the true source of £8 million loans to pro-Leave organisations. Wrong again. The National Crime Agency found no evidence of criminal offences after a “complex” investigation, and EC found itself agreeing a settlement with Banks. Even in spite of the verdict, the EC said it considered itself “right to refer this matter to the NCA for further investigation”. 

These two cases merely fuelled speculation of the EC having an institutional bias against Brexiteers, not least because it doesn’t seem to have pursued Remain cases with the same intensity. The Sunday Telegraph rather hit upon something in 2018 when it found out that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, with three examples of this taking place while commissioners were in their “impartial” positions.

Sir John Holmes, for instance, Chairman from January 2017 to December last year, complained months before he was nominated for the role about a “panoply of Eurosceptic nonsense about the EU”, and his colleague Lord Horam, a commissioner, said in July 2017 that there was a “logical case” for a second referendum.

There is even evidence that EC board members think the whole election system is problematic. In 2020, Bob Posner, Chief Executive of the EC, suggested that the system was “fraying at the edges” and “worrying the public and voters”. This is despite the Commission’s own findings last year that 71 per cent of UK adults are confident that elections are well run in the UK (up from 69 per cent in 2019) and 92 per cent are confident that they know how to go about casting their vote (up from 89 per cent in 2019).

These incidents are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this organisation, and its strange history (to put it politely). From its habit of “reinvestigating” cases, to running investigations without interviewing the people it has accused of misconduct, to turning a blind eye to a scandal in Tower Hamlets, it has hardly inspired confidence. During the course of this article, I even discovered that one of the commissioners was “formerly the Chief Executive of the mail industry regulator, Postal Services Commission, between 2004 and 2008” (a period of time in which the Post Office was doing so well…).

With all of this, it really is no wonder that the Conservatives have talked about abolishing or revamping the commission, which Opposition parties have said “undermines democracy”. Interestingly the Commission is going through something of transition with Rob Vincent, the interim Chairman, who is to be replaced next week by John Pullinger, who until 2019 was the UK’s National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK’s Statistics Authority, so it remains to be seen how it changes under him. His handover brief is pretty enormous.

Either way, whatever one thinks of the Johnson case, this latest investigation should be watched closely.