Tuesday, 19 March 2019

"If Brexit was the creation, in part, of this new world of offshore money and political influence campaigns, Brexit may well ensure that it continues unrestricted."

There's been a lot of magical thinking going on - as noted in the latest edition of the New Yorker: 

The Magical Thinking Around Brexit

The next two weeks will test how deeply a nation can immerse itself in self-delusion.

March 25, 2019 Issue
By Amy Davidson Sorkin

The lexicon of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s buffoonishly mismanaged effort to leave the European Union, includes technical terms such as “backstop” and “customs union,” as well as a fanciful but revealing one: “unicorn.” It has come to be a scornful shorthand for all that the Brexiteers promised voters in the June, 2016, referendum and cannot, now or ever, deliver. An E.U. official, referring to what he saw as the U.K.’s irrational negotiation schemes, told the Financial Times that “the unicorn industry has been very busy.” Anti-Brexit protesters have taken to wearing unicorn costumes. “A lot of the people who advocated Brexit have been chasing unicorns now for a very long time,” Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister of Ireland, said last week in Washington, D.C., where he attended St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. His visit coincided with a series of votes in Parliament that were meant to clarify the plans for Brexit but which did nothing of the kind. 

The Magical Thinking Around Brexit | The New Yorker

There's also been a lot of serious questioning going on: 
Futures Forum: Brexit: and spending yet more dark money 

Including from the MP for Exeter:
Futures Forum: Brexit: and Exeter's MP pressing for 'a full investigation'

The New Yorker reports on “parallels and interconnections in abundance” between the apparent Russian efforts to influence Brexit and the well-documented, and possibly decisive, Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election - again, with mention of the efforts of the MP for Exeter to look into these same issues:

The Chaotic Triumph of Arron Banks, the “Bad Boy of Brexit”

The U.K. is in a panic over voters’ decision to withdraw from the E.U. But the pugnacious millionaire whose donations—and Trumpian scare tactics—helped sway Britons has no regrets.

Letter from London
March 25, 2019 Issue
By Ed Caesar


Banks was singularly calm about Brexit, but he had to contend with some issues of his own. At the request of the Electoral Commission, which oversees voting in the U.K., he was under investigation by the National Crime Agency—Britain’s version of the F.B.I. The commission had asked the agency to investigate Banks and his chief executive, Liz Bilney, after concluding that, among other things, Banks was likely not the true source of all the political contributions made in his name, and that he and others might knowingly have concealed the provenance of those funds. It is illegal in the U.K. to use foreigners’ money in electoral campaigns. “A number of criminal offences may have been committed,” the commission declared. A spokesperson told me that Banks’s and Bilney’s stories had “changed over time,” and that what they told the commission was “not consistent” with company records. (Bilney says that this “evolvement of response” can be ascribed to the commission’s failure to understand “our business structures.”)

A sense of urgency attended the National Crime Agency’s investigation, in part because of widespread fears in the U.K. that foreign actors had meddled in the Brexit vote. Although President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia was ambivalent about the Brexit referendum, he recently pressed May to “fulfill the will” of the British people and rule out a second referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the E.U.—which, polls suggest, would lead to a narrow win for Remain. Moreover, several authorities on Russian foreign policy argue that Putin’s interests are squarely aligned with the Leave movement. Putin, they maintain, considers it strategically useful to weaken European alliances, and is happy to cause uncertainty and tumult in Britain, which has been at odds with Russia on a range of issues. In 2016, for instance, Russia was under sanctions from both the European Union and the United States for its annexation of Crimea.

According to Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment, Russian officials believed that the West had been pursuing a “regime-change agenda” around the world, particularly in Ukraine in 2014, and worried that Putin’s regime might be targeted next. “Russia felt they needed to push back hard,” Weiss told me. “They wanted to promote cleavages in the West, and that’s where their promotion of populist and nationalist groups and—I think—their support of Brexit fits in.”

Banks’s wife, Katya, is Russian. A prominent “ambassador” for Leave.EU, Jim Mellon, whom Banks has described as a “friend and business partner,” made much of his money by investing in Russia. (A representative for Mellon denied that Mellon has had a “close business or professional relationship” with Banks.) Banks’s 2016 memoir, “The Bad Boys of Brexit,” acknowledges that before the referendum campaign he met with Russian officials, including Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian Ambassador to London. Subsequent reporting has uncovered several other previously undisclosed meetings and contacts between Banks and Russian businessmen, during which opportunities with Russian firms in the mineral sector were discussed. In light of these connections, and the National Crime Agency’s investigation, many Britons have asked whether some of Banks’s political donations can be traced to Moscow. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications chief, and an ardent Remainer, told me, “There are still so many questions unanswered about Banks—where the money came from, and his role in the Brexit campaign of lies and misdemeanors.”

The government of the U.K. has been strikingly muted in its response to the evidence of contacts between Banks and Russian diplomats. According to various reports, in the early months of 2016, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, she refused a request by British intelligence services to investigate Banks’s conduct. Since becoming Prime Minister, that July, she has repeatedly declined to comment on these reports—including in Parliament. The subject is a delicate one for May. Although she campaigned for Remain, she has governed on the principle that Brexit is the people’s choice and must be enforced. Given the tensions surrounding the referendum, she is unlikely to invite further probes into the financial background of one of the Leave campaign’s key players. Doing so would be tantamount to using a grenade in a pub brawl.

In Parliament, however, both Labour and Conservative members have repeatedly questioned whether Banks’s dealings with the Russians in the lead-up to the referendum amounted to an influence campaign by a foreign power. In November, 2018, when the National Crime Agency investigation was announced, David Lammy, a Labour M.P., demanded that Britain’s departure from the E.U. be “put on hold until we know the extent of these crimes against our democracy.” Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has called for a “Mueller-style inquiry” into whether the “referendum result was stolen.” The Conservative M.P. Damian Collins has demanded a broader inquiry into Russian interference in British affairs. In an interview at his office in the Houses of Parliament, he told me that he had serious concerns about the source of Banks’s funds. “The reason the questions persist is that he seems to own a number of businesses that don’t make any money,” Collins said. “There’s never really been a clear explanation from him about the funding of these campaigns.”

Banks recently sent Collins’s constituents a letter calling him a “disgrace” and a “snake in the grass.” In an op-ed, Collins responded that he would not be cowed by Banks’s “bullyboy tactics.”


Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told me that there were “parallels and interconnections in abundance” between the apparent Russian efforts to influence Brexit and the well-documented, and possibly decisive, Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election. He described Putin’s ambassadors in D.C. and in London as conduits of “malign influence.” According to an American lawyer with knowledge of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, Banks and Farage have become persons of interest in that inquiry. (This is “bollocks,” Wigmore said.)


Yet it is curious that at least three opportunities with Russians were dangled in front of him in the months before the referendum. The Labour M.P. Ben Bradshaw asked Parliament “why the Kremlin would offer Mr. Banks sweetheart deals.” 


The Chaotic Triumph of Arron Banks, the “Bad Boy of Brexit” | The New Yorker
Robert Mueller Chasing Brexit Leaders Nigel Farage, Arron Banks As Persons Of Interest, ‘New Yorker’ Reports

Arron Banks now has a few money worries:
Brexit Backer Arron Banks. How Much Is He Worth? - Bloomberg
MANDRAKE: Arron Banks’ Brexit campaign outfit £3m in red | Latest Brexit news and top stories - The New European

Today, another Brexit group was fined by the Information Commissioner:
Brexit text-it wrecks it: Vote Leave fined £40k for spamming 200k msgs ahead of EU referendum • The Register 

The Vote Leave fine follows a fine levied against Leave.EU, the unofficial pro-Brexit campaign group, last month. The Arron Banks funded group and his insurance company were fined a total of £120,000 for sending over a million unlawful emails during the Brexit referendum. Both fines are part of a wider investigation by the ICO into the use of data in political campaigns.

Here's some very helpful context from the New Zealand news service Stuff: 

Brexit is looking more murky as donor Arron Banks is investigated

Anne Applebaum
21:41, Mar 09 2019

​OPINION: Elements of the 2016 British referendum campaign have long seemed familiar to Americans.

There was a close, controversial election, full of rancour and anger. There were a lot of wealthy men talking about "the people" and their "will". There were targeted advertising campaigns, stolen data and fake social media accounts.

But now, with only a few days left until Britain is due to face the consequences of that vote, the Brexit story suddenly looks even more familiar: One of its protagonists turns out to have much deeper Russian business connections than previously suspected. He also tried to conceal them.

The protagonist in question is Arron Banks, the most important funder of both the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Leave.EU, one of several organisations that campaigned to get Britain out of the European Union.

It's never been entirely clear where all of Arron Banks' donations came from - or even whether all of the money was really his, as he'd said.

By the relatively low-spending standards of British politics, Banks was a huge donor, giving US$11 million (NZ$16 million) of his own money to the Brexit cause and raising an additional US$5m on top.

And here's the peculiarly British part of the story: Thanks to Banks's extensive use of tax havens and shell companies, it has never been entirely clear where all of that money came from - or even whether all of it was really his.

Some of it, he says, comes from an insurance company he owns. Some comes, supposedly, from "diamond mines".

All of it is spread among dozens of companies based in Gibraltar, the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man, according to documents revealed in the Panama Papers, among other things, as well as Britain. Although he has testified that none of the money used in funding the campaign came from foreign sources - which would be illegal - the British electoral commission found his stories suspicious enough to ask the National Crime Agency to investigate.

Banks also seems to have been very friendly with some foreigners who also believed that Brexit was in their national interest. Last summer, the Guardian reported that the Russian ambassador to Britain had offered him a tantalising and peculiarly lucrative investment in Russian gold mines; Banks declared categorically that he would never invest in Russia: "No. Flat. Zero. Nothing," he replied when asked directly by Channel 4 News.

Last week the broadcaster's reporters alleged that a finance company substantially owned by Banks did pursue the deal - and even identified a shell company, based in Sweden, that could be used to pursue it. Because Banks still denies that the deal happened, and because the story is so hard to follow further, we won't know the truth before March 29, when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU.

But even if this story won't delay Brexit, it does firmly locate the referendum within a larger context. The truth is that Britain has become a place where untransparent money, from unknown sources, is widely accepted with a complacent shrug.

London is the world capital of offshore banking, home to the most sophisticated accountants and lawyers; a third of British billionaires have availed themselves of those services and moved their money beyond the reach of the state, according to a report in the Times of London.

Many of them nevertheless continue to make donations to British political parties, and many continue to lobby to keep the rules that favour them exactly as they are.

With the UK set to leave the European Union on the 29th of March, MPs in parliament are to vote on British Prime Minister Theresa May's latest Brexit deal next week.

As a result, the British political class does not have the willpower to force them to bring their money home. The British state does not have the legal tools to force Banks to show where his cash came from. The British media continue to investigate, but if anyone were trying to influence the British referendum campaign from outside the country - beyond the social media manipulation that is now de rigueur in almost every election - it's possible that we'll never know.

And here's the final irony: If Brexit was the creation, in part, of this new world of offshore money and political influence campaigns, Brexit may well ensure that it continues unrestricted.

The EU is probably the only power in Europe - maybe even the only one in the world - with the regulatory strength to change the culture of tax avoidance. And since 2016, it has been slowly enacting rules designed to do exactly that. Britain, once it leaves the EU, may well be exempt.

British industry might suffer after Brexit, and British power will be reduced. But the grey zone - where politics meets money, where foreign money can become domestic, where assets can be hidden and connections concealed - will survive.

Perhaps that was the point all along.

Brexit is looking more murky as donor Arron Banks is investigated | Stuff.co.nz

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