26 Sep 2015

In it for the money, not for the cause?

The battle lines have been well and truly drawn between two of the groups vying to become the official Leave the EU campaign, thus attracting significant sums of public money with which to fight the referendum.

In the blue corner is 'For Britain'. Its figurehead is Matthew Elliott and it is financed by a group of business leaders and supported by 'Eurosceptic' Tories including a number of MPs. Nearly all its activity has been under the guise of Business for Britain, pushing commercial interests.

In the red corner is 'Leave.EU'. Set up and financed by Arron Banks, this group is presenting itself as the non-Westminster bubble campaign and is attracting Ukip support. Previously it was called The Know.EU until the referendum question made 'leave' the Brexit option.

What stands out about For Britain, despite it having the support of the supposedly arch Eurosceptics Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, is that it isn't actually committed to the UK leaving the EU at all. It's sponsors have a very clear objective, staying in a 'reformed' EU. In their own words:
As business leaders and entrepreneurs responsible for millions of British jobs, we believe that the Government is right to seek a new deal for the EU and for the UK’s role in Europe. We believe that, far from being a threat to our economic interests, a flexible, competitive Europe, with more powers devolved from Brussels, is essential for growth, jobs and access to markets. We therefore urge all political parties to join in committing themselves to a national drive to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU.
Despite this, despite talking exclusively to business interests, and despite not uttering a single compelling argument in favour of leaving the EU, Elliott and Co are surprisingly keen to be the designated official leave campaign. Even having stated their aim of being the official campaign, Matthew Elliott has subsequently gone on the record to explain what he and BfB would do if David Cameron claims to have secured reformed relationship with the EU:
If the Government gets a two-tier Europe, we’re very much in.
What has been obvious to a number of long standing Brexit campaigners is increasingly becoming clear to others who have got involved rather more recently. Namely that Elliott wants to get official campaign status in order to promote and benefit himself. For along with the huge public profile of leading the official campaign comes the power to control the spending and destination of the large bundle of public money that comes with it.

One of the people who has realised this, from his direct dealings behind the scenes with For Britain, is Arron Banks of The Leave.EU. On Twitter on Saturday evening, when I tweeted the Elliott quote above to Iain Martin at CapX and Sebastian Payne at the Spectator, Banks retweeted the quote with an observation:

So I asked why this being the case he had tried unsuccessfully to get Elliott and For Britain to unify their campaigns. Banks explained:

It would be easy to dismiss Banks' observations as a ploy to undermine a rival for official campaign status. But it isn't so easy when possible evidence emerges of what detractors might consider to be a lucrative business plan that may conceivably have been hatched by Elliott and a small circle of money-hungry friends.

This plan, pieces of which have been assembled in outstanding fashion by The Boiling Frog, could be perceived by those detractors as an attempt to benefit from Elliott's vehicle securing official campaign status and control of a lot of public money, which would be followed by substantial private funds.

As this network of companies stands, currently owned directly by close friends and companies based offshore (Hong Kong), there would appear little to stop money being earmarked to buy digital and other services, to the benefit of Mr Elliott and his friends. All the strands interconnect at some point with Business for Britain and campaigntoleave.com.

The lack of income of these companies opens their directors to the charge that they might conceivably have formed them for the purpose of using the referendum campaign as a cash cow. Such charges, even if proved false, could be damaging to the claims that Business for Britain should lead the Brexit campaign.