Thursday 21 June 2018

Brexit backer told to explain Kremlin links after 'boozy lunches'

Arron Banks says the accusations are a ‘convenient witch-hunt’. Picture: PA
Arron Banks says the accusations are a ‘convenient witch-hunt’. Picture: PA

Gavin Cordon

Millionaire Brexit-backer Arron Banks is facing calls to explain his links with the Kremlin following reports his contacts were far more extensive than previously acknowledged.

The Leave.EU founder, who helped bankroll Nigel Farage's campaign, held a series of undisclosed meetings with Russian embassy officials around the time of the 2016 referendum campaign.

A series of emails allegedly show that Mr Banks discussed a potential business deal involving six Russian gold mines with ambassador Alexander Yakovenko after being introduced to him by a suspected Russian spy.

The head of the UK's parliamentary inquiry into "fake news", Conservative MP Damian Collins, said this raised serious questions about Russian interference in UK politics.

"The question I think people will want answered is did Mr Banks profit out of these meetings?" he told BBC One's 'Sunday Politics' programme.

"Did he make money out of it and did he use that money to fund his campaigns?

"Russia has a track record of interfering in the politics of other countries. It does it in a variety of ways. That is why it is important we understand the level of contact and involvement there was here."

Asked about the allegations at the G7 summit in Quebec on Saturday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said: "I am sure that if there are any allegations that need investigation, the proper authorities will do that."

Mr Collins confirmed that Mr Banks had agreed to give evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee as planned tomorrow, having previously announced he was pulling out, accusing the MPs of conducting a "witch hunt".

'The Sunday Times' first reported Mr Banks's alleged links to the Kremlin.

The paper also said emails from Mr Banks and Leave.EU communications chief Andy Wigmore showed they had repeated contacts with Russian officials to discuss matters of mutual interest throughout the EU referendum campaign and its aftermath.

These emails reportedly show that Mr Banks met Mr Yakovenko three times - having previously only acknowledged one encounter in 2015 - and made a visit to Moscow in February 2016 in the midst of the referendum campaign.

Mr Banks and Mr Wigmore also had lunch with the ambassador in November 2016, three days after they and Mr Farage had met Donald Trump in New York following his victory in the US presidential election.

They were said to have been introduced to Mr Yakovenko by Alexander Udod - one of 23 suspected Russian intelligence officers subsequently ejected from the UK after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

The ambassador was said to have proposed a business deal that would have involved them in the consolidation into one company of six Russian gold mines.

Mr Banks has dismissed the claims. "I had two boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador and another cup of tea with him. Bite me," he said. "It's a convenient political witch-hunt, both over Brexit and Trump.

"We didn't profit from any business deals because I never pursued anything."

Mr Banks, whose wife is Russian, acknowledged he made a "family trip" to Moscow in February 2016, but said "no meetings were had with anyone".

He claimed he disclosed details of his contacts with the Russians to US officials. "We actually saw the suits from the American embassy who introduced us to the State Department to explain what had happened and then we briefed the Americans on our meetings with the Russians," he said.

There was no immediate response from Leave.EU.

Irish Independent

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