Leave.EU communications chief met with Russians to discuss 'bananas'

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A leading Brexiteer under fire for alleged links to Russia said he initially met officials from the country to talk about bananas.

Leave.EU communications chief Andy Wigmore said he instigated the meeting at a Ukip conference and had since met Russian figures "many times", as he and founder Arron Banks were grilled by MPs over the conduct of their campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

In a robust and occasionally confrontational display at the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Banks and Wigmore confirmed that Leave.EU had on Tuesday lodged an appeal against an Electoral Commission finding the organisation breached spending rules during the referendum.

Banks also confirmed to the committee investigating "fake news" the Brexit-backing group held talks with controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica and intended to use its services if it had been selected as the official Leave campaign - which it was not.

Wigmore told the committee he first met with the Russians in his role as a diplomat for the South American country of Belize.

Read more: Arron Banks to be quizzed on links to Russia after leaked emails show secret meetings with Putin envoy.

He said: "We had a couple of issues in relation to bananas and sugar and the initial conversation I had with this gentleman at the Ukip conference - I was trying to find investors to look at perhaps buying a banana farm which had got into trouble because of its owner... and as a consequence Belize couldn't sell its bananas in places like the United States or the United Kingdom.

"It needed someone to buy them. One of the conversations we had was about that. There was a myriad of things we wanted to talk to them about... it wasn't anything to do with politics."

Reports in the Sunday Times claimed Banks held a series of undisclosed meetings with Russian embassy officials around the time of the 2016 referendum campaign.

The paper said it had seen emails showing he also discussed a potential business deal involving six Russian gold mines with ambassador Alexander Yakovenko after being introduced to him by a suspected Russian spy.

Banks, who also admitted during the grilling to donating money to Ukip, told Nigel Farage on his LBC radio show Monday that he first met the ambassador over a "boozy lunch" that included Stalin vodka, but insisted there was "no evidence" he had taken Russian money.

During the show, Farage hung up on a caller after Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr appeared on the line to ask him about his involvement with Banks. He quickly cut her off, saying: “Goodbye. Listen I am not interested in talking to Carole Cadwalladr from the Guardian who has made a whole series of extraordinary claims about me."