There was “nothing sinister” about the contact between Leave.EU and Russian officials, the pro-Brexit campaign group’s communication’s chief has said.
Andy Wigmore told MPs on Tuesday all he and Leave.EU founder Arron Banks had got from the Russian ambassador was “a couple of great lunches”.
Wigmore said he had first met Russian officials in his role as a diplomat for Belize in an effort to find a buyer for a “banana farm” in the country.
Banks and Wigmore have come under pressure over their alleged links with Russia amid allegations Moscow interfered in the referendum and today gave evidence to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
The combative session ended with Banks walking out of the room early, to have lunch, despite pleas from committee chair Damian Collins to stay.
At one point during the meeting, Wigmore produced a brown envelope with the words “top secret” that he said contained emails proving he had been transparent about his contact with Russia.
During the three hour grilling from MPs, Banks dismissed the idea he was the “evil genius” behind the disruption of Western democracies.
He told MPs his role in the Brexit referendum was to “set the wildfires burning” by campaigning against immigration.
“Our skill was creating bushfires and putting a big fan on and making the fan blow,” he said.
But Banks said in hindsight he wished he had not been involved. “If I had my time again I probably wouldn’t have done this in the first place,” he said.
Asked if he engaged in fake news, he told the committee he was “not above” using “alternative methods” to get press attention during the campaign.
Banks said he had been happy to “lead people up the garden path” in order to generate headlines.
But added: “I like to think I’m an evil genius with a white cat that controls the whole of Western democracy. But clearly that’s nonsense.”
Wigmore said he saw his role as being an “agent provocateur”, when asked if he told lies to advance his aims.
“If you are trying to sell something, or put a good case over to somebody, you will tell the best story. If that’s provocation or a lie, if you want to call it that, yeah,” he said.
He added of Leave.EU’s success is campaigning for Brexit: “Referendums are not about facts, it’s about emotion and you have got to tap into that emotion.”
In May, Leave.EU was fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking spending rules during the referendum.
An investigation revealed that Banks had overspent by at least £77,380 – 10% over the limit for non-party registered groups.
Banks has branded the investigation a “joke” and said it had “fired an arrow into the wall and painted a target around the arrow”.
He and Wigmore confirmed today that Leave.EU has lodged an appeal against the Electoral Commission finding.