Millionaire Brexit campaigner ‘had undisclosed meetings with Russians’

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Millionaire Brexit campaigner Arron Banks had a series of undisclosed meetings with Russian embassy officials and held discussions about a business deal involving six Russian goldmines, it has been reported.

The Leave.EU founder, who helped bankroll Nigel Farage’s campaign, was introduced to the ambassador Alexander Yakovenko by a suspected Russian intelligence officer, according to The Sunday Times.

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

The reports are likely to raise fresh questions about whether the Kremlin sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 vote.

Salisbury incident
Russian ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Mr Banks, who last week announced he was pulling out of the Commons inquiry into “fake news”, accusing the MPs of a “witch hunt”, said he would now be giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee as planned on Tuesday.

According to The Sunday Times, the emails showed  Mr Banks met Mr Yakovenko on three occasions – having previously only acknowledged one encounter in 2015 – and made a visit to Moscow in February 2016 in the midst of the referendum campaign.

The paper said that he and Mr Wigmore had also had lunch with the ambassdor in November 2016 – just three days after they and Nigel 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 goldmines.

The emails were passed to The Sunday Times by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, Banks’s ghostwriter on The Bad Boys of Brexit, who is now writing a book with the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft on Russia’s use of “hybrid warfare” to influence British politics.

The paper said she came forward after she said her email accounts were “hacked”.

Writing in the paper, Ms Oakeshott said: “Banks and Wigmore were shamelessly used by the Russians. Perhaps, the Englishmen did not mind. Banks and Wigmore genuinely sympathised — and continue to sympathise — with some of Putin’s political views.”

Mr Banks dismissed the claims, telling the paper: “I had two boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador and another cup of tea with him. Bite me. It’s a convenient political witch-hunt, both over Brexit and Trump.”

He told the paper that nothing had come of their discussions over the goldmine deal. “We didn’t profit from any business deals because I never pursued anything,” he said.

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

He told the paper he had also 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.

Mr Wigmore told the paper: “We never offered any information to him (Mr Yakovenko) or any Russian any details of our (Brexit) campaign.”

There was no immediate response from Leave.EU.

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