‘Bad boy of Brexit’ Aaron Banks ‘put on eight kilos’ amid stress over claims of Kremlin links – but insists only thing that really scares him is his feisty ex-gymnast Russian wife (who once hid his passport to stop him seeing ‘mistress’)
- Arron Banks is embroiled in allegations concerning funding from the Russians
- He airily dismisses the allegations as part of a witch hunt by bitter Remainers
- Banks, Andy Wigmore and Farage were first Brits to meet Trump after election
- Says Nigel Farage has been a huge support during the past two years
he, Nigel and Andy were the first Brits to meet the President-elect
Arron Banks and I are enjoying Russian refreshments in the stately home the multi-millionaire bought from musician Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield, just outside Bristol.
Sadly, our tipple today is not a tot (or ten) from the bottle of Joseph Stalin’s very own and extremely rare vodka — which Arron and the Russian Ambassador to Britain drank during a now infamous and ‘catatonically drunk’ six-hour lunch back in September 2015.
‘It was an amazing lunch. Phenomenal! We were totally trolleyed by the end of it,’ he beams. ‘I staggered out after six hours, and the Ambassador couldn’t even get up!’
No, today we are drinking tea. Fragrant, delicate; blended specially for the Russian Ambassador and then given to Arron.
Arron Banks, pictured, and his sidekick Andy Wigmore have been embroiled in endless allegations involving their links with Donald Trump and funding from the Russians — all of which they airily dismiss as part of a witch hunt by bitter Remainers
‘I thought it appropriate,’ he tells me. ‘We saved it especially for you. Do you dare?’ Cue some rather off-colour jokes about radiation poisoning (Russian dissident and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea laced with polonium in London). Arron is the insurance magnate and donor to the anti-Brussels Leave.EU group, who’s been all over the news this week as a self-styled ‘Bad Boy of Brexit’.
He and his sidekick Andy Wigmore have been embroiled in endless allegations involving their links with Donald Trump, funding from the Russians, a series of very dodgily timed meetings, and rumours of sudden opportunities to invest in Russian gold mines — all of which they airily dismiss as part of a witch hunt by bitter Remainers.
‘We’ve been under constant attack for the past two years,’ Banks says. ‘At times, it feels like an all-out war. It’s stressful, I’ve put on eight kilos! And this week . . !’
On Tuesday, they appeared before the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to answer questions about manufacturing fake news and allegations that the Leave.EU campaign was funded by Russians.
On Wednesday, Banks threatened proceedings against Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit spokesperson, who claimed he had colluded with Russia to ‘deliver Brexit’.
The hearing didn’t go quite as the MPs had intended. Instead of kow-towing and answering nicely, Arron — rather full of himself at the best of times — displayed his utter contempt for the process.
‘They were pretty low grade, really,’ he says. ‘They were all Remainers there to aggrandise themselves rather than find out information,’ he says. ‘It was a bit disappointing.’ So he taunted MPs with rumours of their own drunken bullying, dismissed the Russian allegations as rubbish and happily admitted to misleading journalists in order to stoke up pro-Brexit stories.
Fake news? ‘I wouldn’t say “fake”,’ he clarifies. ‘I’d call it attention-grabbing. And don’t forget Remain did exactly the same, and they had unlimited resources and politicians. It all got a bit desperate.’
After three hours, ignoring the committee chairman’s plea to stay five more minutes, he and Andy Wigmore scooped up their papers and left, saying they had a lunch appointment and adding: ‘If you want us, we’ll be in the bar.’
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As Arron and Andy (Leave.EU’s communications chief) tucked into salmon, guinea fowl and vodka in the House of Commons dining room, the committee members were left visibly reeling. This pair might as well have come from a different planet. They are as wide as the M4. They swear and swagger and say things like ‘whatevs’ and ‘tw**’ a lot.
Arron looks pink, puffy, podgy and utterly exhausted. But he is also delighted at all the fuss, and reminds me at least three times that the Sunday Times dedicated four pages to him and his ‘alleged’ shenanigans last weekend.
Emails suggested that his links with Moscow officials were more extensive than previously admitted. They also revealed he had discussed a potential business deal involving six Russian gold mines with the Russian Ambassador.
Banks says he looked at the mines and decided not to invest because they weren’t up to snuff.
Since Wednesday, he says, he’s received countless congratulations about his Commons appearance — by email, Twitter and in the street — from people pleased to see him stick it to the Remainers.
He adores attention. This is, after all, the man who in 2014 pledged to donate £100,000 to Ukip, only to up it to £1million when William Hague dismissed him as ‘a nobody’.
‘I was in bed when Nigel [Farage] phoned to tell me what William had said, and of course I was annoyed,’ he recounts. ‘So I said, “F*** him. I’ll give a million quid then”.’
And he did. After that, he switched to the anti-Brussels campaign group Leave.EU and gave (and lent) them so much money that he’s been called ‘the man who bought Brexit’. He commissioned a laddish book about the victory called The Bad Boys Of Brexit.
And then, with Farage and Andy, he jumped on the Trump election bandwagon, following The Donald’s campaign and attending rallies all over America. He describes Trump as ‘charming, thoughtful and a great listener’.
When Trump won, he, Nigel and Andy were the first Brits to meet the President-elect — and posted the now-famous photo of them beaming outside the golden door to Trump’s penthouse. They hadn’t been invited. When Trump won, they’d popped on spec to Trump Tower in New York to see Trump’s right-hand woman Kellyanne Conway, but arrived at the same time as a massive demonstration by 40,000 Hillary Clinton supporters and got locked in.
If Arron is a punchy, thick-skinned man, who loves a scrap, adores being provocative on Twitter and will never walk away from a fight, his wife Katya (pictured) trumps him ten times over
‘Me and Nigel were smoking on a balcony until the Secret Service grabbed us, yelling: “You’re targets, get in! Get in!” he says, as he whips out his phone to show me photos of them puffing proudly away.
‘And the apartment! Gold everywhere!’ he says. ‘It’s like a Roman emperor’s home.
‘I suppose he’s a bit like an emperor. But to me it didn’t feel very homely — a bit too much like a museum. I wouldn’t fancy living there.’
Three days after his return, Arron was having lunch again with the Russian Ambassador. Something that, perhaps understandably, has raised a few eyebrows in the intelligence services.
‘You might say the timing looked suspicious [after the encounter with Trump], but we’d got on brilliantly before. So when he saw our faces splashed over every newspaper, then of course he was going to get in touch. Time for another lunch, wasn’t it!’
Fifty-two-year-old Arron has a breezy explanation for everything and anything. The story of him being expelled from a Berkshire boarding school for stealing the lead from the school’s roof is dismissed with a ‘fake news! I’ve never nicked anything! Though I was asked to leave after crashing my car at the end of a massive pub crawl’.
He also has ready answers about his not infrequent visits to Russia. They were, he says, family trips to visit his mother-in-law: his second wife, Katya, 45, the mother of his three youngest children (he has two older daughters) is Russian.
He insists he never passed on any information to the Russians, and was certainly never remunerated for doing so.
And he freely admits to having had two British passports — one for normal use, plus a spare, emergency one, ever since Katya stole his then only passport just before a business trip to South Africa, where she was convinced he was off to see a mistress (‘totally untrue’) and he couldn’t go.
‘I was fuming! But she can be pretty forceful,’ he says.
‘She tried to divorce me once. ‘But after a year and spending a million quid on lawyers, we got fed up and got back together.’
Katya (a very feisty former gymnast, ice skater, pianist and occasional model who speaks six languages) was once dragged into a parliamentary row about suspected spying involving a Lib Dem MP and his Russian female parliamentary aide.
When a journalist had asked Katya if she had ever had any contact with MI5, she replied: ‘I have never shopped in MFI.’ (After that, Arron bought her a car with the number plate FBI 5PY and, for good measure, one for himself, X MI5 5PY, and said she would have made a good spy.)
Unlike Arron, Katya has not enjoyed the publicity of the past two years that has sprung from the acrimonious fallout over the Brexit vote: ‘She hates it, hates it.’ But he says he had no choice but to take up the cause against Brussels.
‘A lot of very clever people couldn’t see the elephant in the room,’ he says. ‘Mass immigration, the pressure on the NHS, schools, everything. In many ways it’s a cultural war, not a political war.
‘Of course I respect some MPs, but as a breed many have done little or nothing.’ He talks of a ‘people’s movement’, and of giving ‘voice to the forgotten millions of English people’.
But sitting in his mini-stately home, and with an estimated fortune somewhere between £100 million and £250 million (‘The actual amount is none of anyone’s business’), he doesn’t exactly feel a man of the people. ‘Ha ha! No! But I am from a middle-class family’ — he was raised by his mother in Basingstoke while his father managed sugar plantations in Africa — ‘and I know the fear of starting your own business with a desk and two telephones and no money.’
And no qualifications. He was kicked out of school before his A-levels, so university was out.
Instead, he started selling vacuum cleaners and houses before moving to an entry-level job at insurance firm Lloyd’s of London; from there to Norwich Union.
He later co-founded insurance company Brightside, which was sold five years ago for £130 million, and more recently GoSkippy, which is now worth an estimated £100 million. Much of his fortune, though, is held offshore in Belize, the Isle of Man, the British Virgin Islands and Gibraltar, making it difficult to value.
His political beliefs go ‘right back to Maastricht’, the treaty that set Europe on the road to ever-closer political integration. As a ‘spotty teenager’ he was a member of the Conservative Party and, aged 19, was the youngest ever Tory party candidate when he ran for Basingstoke Council — ‘I got a letter from Mrs T congratulating me!’
He took it seriously, even bought a golden Labrador called Folly to help him win the housewives over.
‘It really helped. I didn’t win, but it was close. Nigel Farage could learn a bit from that. I’m not sure he’s that popular with women. Maybe if he got a dog . . .’
He lights up when he talks about Farage, and clearly adores him.
They overlapped back in the City but never formally met. Now they go drinking together.
‘I think I can hold my drink better than Nigel, though we both stay pretty coherent right to the death and are happy drunks.’ His foray in Basingstoke was not his only flirtation with front-line politics. Once, after donating ‘a lot of money’ to the Tories in Chipping Sodbury, he was invited to be the candidate for South Gloucestershire in the 2010 general election.
But again his ambitions were short-lived. Half-way through hosting a dinner with all the party’s local bigwigs, he says Katya, whom he married in 2001, got up, said: “I’ve f***ing well had enough of this — if this is what it means for you to be an MP, then no way”, and walked out.’
‘And that was my parliamentary career up in smoke,’ he says.
Nigel Farage, he says, has been a huge support during the past two years, when the abuse and brickbats stretched far beyond his regular Twitter spats
If Arron is a punchy, thick-skinned man, who loves a scrap, adores being provocative on Twitter and will never walk away from a fight, Katya trumps him ten times over.
She has been involved in endless run-ins, including a fist fight at a football match between Arsenal and CSKA Moscow when she cheered loudly for the Russians from the Arsenal corporate box. The Arsenal supporters started baiting her — and then she really lost it, climbing down out of the box to have it out with them before being dragged off by security to calm down.
There was an incident in New York’s Central Park where she was chased off the ice rink by a furious Father Christmas for skating too fast, backwards, through the crowds.
I ask Arron if he’s afraid of her.
‘Only when she steals my passport,’ he says. ‘And my King Charles I gold coin worth £350,000 that is now mysteriously in her safe, not mine any more . . .
‘But we have fun. She’s a character. One glass of wine and she’s a gibbering goblin: she’ll dance on the table and burst into song and everyone wants her to come to dinner because you never know what’s going to happen next.’
The same could be said of him. He’s lively company and surprisingly charming.
Nigel Farage, he says, has been a huge support during the past two years, when the abuse and brickbats stretched far beyond his regular Twitter spats. He says his computer’s been hacked. There have been people hiding in the bushes outside his office, women sent to try to entrap him and death threats from angry Remainers.
‘Plenty of them and quite specific — “I will kill you and stab you if I see you in the street” — which can be worrying, though Katya would probably see them off with a karate kick.’
He also says he’s been the subject of fake news allegations himself. ‘I’ve been accused of owning an ostrich farm with links to the Italian Mafia, and being a Viagra salesman. And of being a “tool of the Kremlin”!
‘That made me cross. That upset me because it made me look daft and I do a good enough job of that already.’
But he’s not had his fill of politics. Nowhere near. ‘I was thinking about Mayor of London,’ he says. ‘It’s more of an American-style race — you don’t have to be endorsed by anyone, you just need to have a personality.
‘And I’ve got one of those. I think it could be interesting. Yes, I might just give it a go.’
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