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Leave in the Lurch
Brexit, Issue 1471
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Leave.EU chief executive Liz Bilney faces questioning over the antics of Aaron Banks and chums
BREXIT cheerleader Liz Bilney is heading for a rendezvous with Inspector Knacker. As chief executive of Arron Banks’s Leave.EU, she was the “responsible person” who must account for every penny spent. Now the Electoral Commission has found Leave.EU “knowingly or recklessly” breached the Brexit referendum spending limits, it is Bilney, not Banks or Nigel Farage, who must face the cops.

But was she really “responsible”, or just a convenient figurehead? No one who has read Banks’s self-aggrandising account of the campaign, Bad Boys of Brexit, can be in any doubt as to who called the shots.

Take the book’s entry for 1 August 2015, after one of the 900,000 or so online followers that US political strategists Goddard Gunster had helped Leave.EU collect had complained to Banks that the font in a campaign email was so small he “needed a bloody microscope to read it”.

Banks exploded. “It’s a shame we can’t organise anything. The email looked shit,” he told Bilney. “I expect to see a massive improvement in attitude and performance.” Banks was “appalled by the lazy pace” of the campaign. Some of Bilney’s people were “swinging the lead”. He demanded “daily reports on numbers of registrations, donations and site usage as well as a weekly newsletter”.

Absurd micromanagement
Faced with absurd micromanagement, rants and harassment, Bilney threatened to resign before backing down and apologising. Banks quoted her as telling him she was drinking “a pint of suckitup (her words) and was getting on with the job”.

The Electoral Commission fined Leave.EU for an “unlawful overspend” of “at least £77,380”. Serious though follow-up criminal charges may be, no one can claim that overspending by about 10 percent of the legal budget of £700,000 swung the referendum. The political significance of the investigation lies in the Electoral Commission’s use of “at least”. Leave.EU was meant to have reported not only its spending during the official campaign period but also spending in the months before the cap was enforced that carried over and propelled Leave to victory.

Take the money lavished on the pricey consultants at Goddard Gunster. They and Leave.EU have admitted Goddard did a little more than give Banks the referendum-winning advice that “facts don’t work” in modern politics. One strategist told PR Week the firm had staff embedded in Leave.EU UK offices and ten more in the US assigned to the account. Banks said Goddard Gunster was able to mine social media databases, “allowing it to conduct in-depth demographic polling and recommend precision target-messaging”.

Propaganda budget
For all that, the Electoral Commission said Bilney had failed to report fees paid in the “contractual arrangement” with the firm, which must have been “in excess of the spending limit”. Nor, the commission continued, did Leave.EU accurately report £6m of loans from Banks to Leave.EU. Meanwhile, a look at the accounts of a Banks company, Better for the Country Ltd (which has Bilney on the board), showed it provided £12.4m of “administrative services” to Leave.EU in the year to May 2016. Add these figures together and you glimpse a propaganda budget that may have swung the result, and for which Bilney may carry the can.

At the start of Bad Boys of Brexit, Banks introduces Bilney by saying she fought a losing battle to bring his and his friends’ “antics” under control: “The best she can hope is that they don’t land her in prison.”

More top stories in the latest issue:

TIMETABLE BOMB
The chaos caused by changing timetables shows why the rail network needs leadership. Instead it has Chris Grayling.

MONEY TO BURN
More questions for British firm Celotex over the use of highly flammable insulation material on tall buildings.

TURKS & BATHOS
Excruciating levels of sycophancy on display at the private Anglo-Turkish beanfeast.

JUST FANCY THAT
The Economist’s largest share-holder invites over-employed former chancellor George Osborne to join its panel.

A FIERY CURRY
Bishop Michael Curry’s many mentions of “fire” sparked memories for Windsor Castle residents.

PEWS BULLETIN
Channel 4’s straw poll of congregation members in Kilkenny told us little about Roman Catholic views, as it was held outside the, er, Anglican cathedral.

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