4 December 2016
Arron Banks was smoking on a terrace halfway up the tower block when the security guards warned him that he might be shot. “We had a few drags and they came and said, ‘Get your ass inside!’ Looking down, there were 30,000 protesters. They were worried someone was going to see a figure upstairs and take a shot at us.”
These weren’t just any security guards, of course, and this was not any old tower. The muscle was the US Secret Service and the building was Trump Tower in Manhattan, home of the president-elect of the United States. Banks and his ally Nigel Farage had “nipped out for a fag” before becoming the first British politicians to visit Donald Trump after his shock election victory.
Banks is the 50-year-old insurance millionaire, worth more than £100m by most accounts, whose Leave.EU campaign helped win the EU referendum. Yet there is something of the schoolboy in the sweetshop about him when he speaks of his visit to Trump Tower.
Throughout the EU referendum campaign, Banks and Farage were the insurgents, the political wing of the protest movement that led to Brexit. Now they’re the ones wading through protesters, so they can visit the president-elect in his golden lair.
They were there when Trump was picking his top two aides: Reince Priebus, who Banks met months earlier, and can provide a picture to prove it, and Steve Bannon, the alt-right conservative visionary behind Breitbart News who ran the latter stages of the presidential campaign. “It is quite remarkable when you consider, in the middle of all that, they had still got time to give us an hour chat,” Banks says.
There were hugs for Farage and some joshing. Trump’s opening gambit was: “Nigel, do you think Brexit was bigger or was my election bigger?” Farage deferred to Trump, but he and Banks were only there because the president-elect believed Brexit paved the way for his win.
“What Trump clearly recognises is that it’s all part of the same anti-establishment movement that’s been spreading like wildfire,” Banks says. “In his own mind, he sees very much the connection between the two. He sees Nigel as the architect of Brexit.”
This was not the blowhard Trump of the campaign. “The public persona is very different in private. He seemed quite humble actually, and quite shy. There is a lot of mutual respect between the two that they are outsiders fighting the political establishment. We come across lots of politicians in the UK and virtually all of them are on transmit rather than receive, whereas Trump listened to Nigel for quite long periods. I found him to be calm, rational, very well informed.”
Ukip’s Raheem Kassam got the party’s message across in the same way as the US president-elect did during his campaignREUTERS/NEIL HALL
Farage gave Trump advice ahead of the presidential debates about taking on establishment candidates on TV, but a year ago it was Trump’s aides who advised Farage, Banks and his sidekick Andy Wigmore about how to attract free publicity by making controversial statements. Their adverts included one about free movement for Kalashnikovs after the Paris terrorist attacks and another on Remembrance Sunday, on how voting for Brexit would honour Britain’s war dead. They consciously set out to emulate Trump.
“We learnt how to use and abuse the mainstream media with their phoney outrage,” Banks has said. “We fed off that fake outrage. All they were doing was giving us more oxygen. The mainstream media did more to grow our reach than anything else.”
Banks, the architect of many of the outrageous statements made throughout the referendum campaign, also defies preconceptions. He loathes most British politicians bar Farage, and regards denizens of Westminster as wretched or corrupt. In person, though, he is infectiously good company. A big froglike grin, not unlike Farage’s own, is never far from his face.
Follow my lead: Brexit and Donald Trump used the same slogans en route to their seismic victoriesGETTY/JEFF J MITCHELL
Over coffee, though, there was a frown when discussing the government’s refusal to use Farage as an official intermediary with Trump. “Why do they want Nigel on the sidelines just knocking 10 bells out of them? I don’t get it. I think if they were sensible, they would make him a special adviser to the British Embassy in Washington. Give him a knighthood and just be done with it.”
A few days after we met Banks, Trump announced that he wanted Farage to be Britain’s ambassador to Washington, a carefully calibrated provocation to a government that had made rather more effort getting to know Hillary Clinton’s team. “Nigel had been on Fox News every evening for three months cheerleading for Trump,” Banks says. “He was almost the only foreign politician to support Trump.”
Banks insists Farage talked up Theresa May and urged Trump to sign a free trade deal. “Trump was very receptive to that,” says Banks. He also says Farage did not get what he deserved when a No 10 source described him as “an irrelevance”. Banks says: “That’s why I think he was pretty narked about the comments from No 10.”
Banks himself believes he is the subject of a witch-hunt by the government. The tax authorities have demanded that he pays inheritance tax on his donations to Ukip prior to the 2015 general election, on the grounds that donations to political parties are not exempt unless the party has an MP. Banks first shot to public prominence when he defected from the Tories in 2014 and donated £100,000 to Ukip, increasing his offer to £1m when William Hague said he had never heard of him. With commendable wit, Banks is now considering taking HMRC to the European Court of Human Rights for infringing his.
He also believes Ukip has become a basket case and is planning now to spend his time creating a right-wing version of the Momentum pressure group instead.
WE MEET at Old Down Manor, a country pile outside Bristol, owned by Banks, that he hires out for weddings. His Leave. EU campaign won the support of Ukip MEPs after hosting a party for them here that saw one of them fall into the swimming pool.
Banks says he is “much more negative” about May than Farage, because she is “an extremely cautious politician” who he says is “making a complete Horlicks of Brexit”. Banks can’t understand why Remainers and some Brexiteers are arguing over the nuances of access to the single market or customs union. “We voted to leave. To me, it is pretty straightforward. Leaving the European Union means leaving the single market. They are deliberately making it complex for their own political ends.”
Banks does not trust May to get a good deal after the prime minister called in plans for the French and Chinese-built Hinkley Point nuclear power station and then gave it the green light anyway. “No business would do that deal. Trump wouldn’t do that deal. She’s got no balls, has she? If the Chinese want to get angry, let them get angry.”
Banks’s approach, like Trump’s and Farage’s, is more sympathetic to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to China. He backs Moscow’s attempts to secure a victory for President Assad’s Syrian regime over Isis militants. “There’s going to be a winner, there’s going to be a loser and the quicker it’s over the quicker the pain stops,” he says. “I’m sorry, but there it is. The biggest threat we face is not the Russians, but militant Islam.”
Banks’s affinity with Russia is conditioned, in part, by the fact that his wife, Ekaterina Paderina, the mother of his five children, is a Russian model. Ekaterina once overstayed her student visa and was falsely labelled a Kremlin spy by the tabloids. Banks’s response was to buy her a personalised number plate: X M15 SPY.
“We need to be co-operating with the Russians rather than trying to pick stupid fights with them,” he says. “Everything that Putin has done has been extremely logical and in response to stupidity, from Ukraine to Crimea.” Banks speaks admiringly of Trump because he is “not for destabilising places and causing trouble”.
This rather supine approach to foreign policy contrasts dramatically with Banks’s penchant for causing trouble on the home front.
Smoke signal: Farage and Banks were told they might get shot at Trump Tower
As one of the self-described Bad Boys of Brexit, the title of his rambunctious new book on the referendum, he came out of the campaign with an instinctive feel for the concerns of disgruntled voters, a million-strong email list of Brexit supporters and a loathing of the political class.
Banks’s version of the Leave campaign was a heady combination of hi-tech and low rhetoric. He is now a missionary for the power of data and modelling. His American political strategist, Gerry Gunster, came up with a poll on referendum day that was accurate to within 0.1% of the final result. Banks is now using the same techniques, employing artificial intelligence to read people’s views and interests on social media, in the aim of finding customers for his insurance business. “We are running a thousand different ads where one of our competitors will run one ad. It will see what the response is — did that work? Didn’t it work? — amend it, boom, boom, boom.” The money is rolling in.
The paradox of Leave.EU was that they were technologically cutting-edge, but employed rhetoric that some thought was from the dark ages. Banks caused fury with politicised adverts on Remembrance Sunday and used tactics such as publishing the mobile number and email address of Robbie Gibb, editor of BBC’s live political programmes, when the corporation did not invite Farage to take part in a television debate. “His phone blew up and his email server went down,” Banks recalls gleefully.
Banks’s book successfully conveys the anarchic amusement of taking on a po-faced establishment. But the charge he and his gang have to answer is that they traded on the worst elements of human nature, promoting an atavistic nationalism that has allied them with the alt-right of white supremacists and Holocaust deniers in America and the Front National in France.
Banks utterly rejects this and robustly defends the demands for controls on immigration that were the centrepiece of his campaign. “To say all racists voted for Brexit is the obvious easy comment, but
I don’t think that’s the case,” he says. “To say we’re a nation state and we should have borders and we should protect those borders is not racist.” Banks employs EU migrants. “I’m in favour of immigration, but controlled immigration. The biggest cheers Nigel got during rallies were when he said we’ve got to start to think about the quality of our life rather than just the GDP.”
The charge I find more persuasive is that in denouncing the Westminster establishment with its political games, Banks flirts with hypocrisy. He sees himself as a slayer of SW1’s dragons, but in reality he did not ignore the political games, he just played them better than George Osborne and the Remain strategists. By distilling a complicated message down to a few memorable phrases, Banks was not anti-politics, he was good at politics. He learnt this from business.
“I worked for Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway and what he always said about business was keep it simple. Politicians do the opposite, they make it as damned complicated as possible.”
If Banks’s foreign policy is off-the-shelf isolationism, he has strong views about what needs to happen on the home front, starting with big cuts in business taxes. “It would be a massive stimulus to the economy.” If this sounds like the self-serving musing of a multimillionaire, Banks also has radical ideas to redistribute wealth. “We need to teach the rich how to behave. I have generally found rich people to be the tightest people alive.”
He wants a tax system that encourages charitable giving. “In America they have a massive culture of giving. You could very easily say, ‘Your personal income tax is 45%, however if you earn over a million pounds your taxation will go up to 60% if you don’t give away 20% of your earnings.’”
Banks himself has given more than £1m in the past three years to causes that include Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale, which works with children in Africa. “This is the ludicrous thing about the racism stuff. My big charities are women’s empowerment in Lesotho and Aids orphans.”
Banks’s second plan is an inheritance tax rate of 90% over £5m. “I cannot believe it is right or equitable for people to inherit huge fortunes. One per cent of the population owns 50% of the country and that is wrong. It shows that the system isn’t working.”
Ask him how he would boost equality and you get a familiar answer. “It starts with education. We have devalued education so much that everyone got an A with a cornflake packet. You need to set standards that are higher for the working class than for bloody public schools.” He’s Michael Gove on crack. Banks sends his own children private. “Of course. Why would I condemn them to a lousy education?”
On inheritance tax, however, Banks intends to practise what he preaches with his own kids. “I’ll leave them with what’s appropriate. I don’t want them to be sitting on a fortune. My ambition for my children is to buy them a nice house, give them a good education and leave some cash. The rest is up to them.”
In the meantime, he is an indulgent father. “I’m bloody hopeless. I have an explosion and they know that they are going to get away with it! If the naughtiness is slightly mischievous, I can’t bring myself to do much about it.” I wonder where they get that from?
Country pile: Banks, owner of Old Down Manor and worth £100m-plus, can afford to smileTOM BARNES FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE
Banks sees himself as the ultimate outsider, despite wealth that makes him a member of the elite. “I don’t feel particularly elite because everything I have created I’ve done myself. No one gave it to me. I started my business with a desk and two phones,” he says. “It’s not a question of hating the elite, it’s a question of hating politicians.”
Banks recently accompanied Farage to The Spectator awards dinner, the hottest ticket in town for Westminster watchers, but symptomatic of everything Banks loathes. “We were sitting in the corner and I said to Nigel: ‘It’s all in-jokes, it’s all people that know each other, it’s a bubble. With each speech Nigel was getting angrier and angrier with these people.” To complete the torture, Farage won the lifetime achievement award.
BANKS says he “quite likes” the Brexiteers David Davis and Kate Hoey. During the campaign, “Labour MPs were generally nicer people than the Tories, who almost to a man were idiots and quite obnoxious”.
Banks was once a politician. He stood, unsuccessfully, as a Tory councillor. His agent was Mark Fullbrook, Sir Lynton Crosby’s business partner. “The Lynton Crosby magic wasn’t quite dispensed at that stage.” He laughs, then looks more serious. “In fairness, we stood in a Labour area that was impregnable. We actually improved the result.” He sounds like every other politician I’ve ever met, boasting how he outperformed his party.
His party in recent years has been Ukip, but Banks is done with an outfit he calls “a wonderful mess, a delicious mess”. Instead he intends to turn his million-strong mailing list into a movement to oust 200 MPs that he regards as useless or corrupt. Candidates would agree to stand for just one parliament on a mandate to oust the scoundrels, change the rules to ban the under-40s standing and MPs serving more than two terms and to abolish the House of Lords.
“We’ve got to find a way to kill the career politicians,” he explains. “We’ve got a House of Lords with 800 failed politicians sitting there. The political inflation we’re suffering, it’s like the Weimar Republic, isn’t it?” Except Banks says the “Wehrmacht Republic”, which is a noteworthy slip. I wonder if by pointing this out I’m being a snide Westminster insider, but I’d treat anyone else the same.
There are drawbacks to Banks’s plan. The two-term rule would have prevented the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Tony Blair and Theresa May. The age limit would have kept Pitt the Younger waiting 16 years for his chance.
Banks reveals new details of the scheme. He would not pick the targets, the public would. “Through social media you target each of the constituencies and let the local people grade their MP. From that, we then decide which candidate is going up against which MP. Centrally, you would vet the candidates for police records or the crazy stuff.” This outfit would have a national spokesman. Guess who? “There is no reason why it has to be Nigel, it could be anybody.”
The central organisation would then crowdfund the campaign. He has already spoken to another Brexiteer, whose company organises such campaigns stateside. “We spoke to Steve Hilton about that. He’s got a thing in America that is going quite well.”
All of which begs the $64,000 question: would he stand himself? “I honestly don’t know,” Banks says. It’s a politician’s answer. “You’re a politician now, aren’t you?” I say. “I don’t think so,” he replies.