On 11 March 2016, three months before the European referendum, and long before anyone had started to wonder about foreign interference in the two political cataclysms of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – the Russian embassy in London put out a press release.
Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, had made a speech at Chatham House a few days earlier. A speech in which he noted that “the only country who would like us to leave the EU is Russia”. And the embassy had taken exception.
A couple of hundred miles away, in Lysander House, Catbrain Lane, Bristol, a modern office block on a busy roundabout that serves as the headquarters of both Eldon Insurance – owned by local businessman Arron Banks – and the Leave.EU campaign team – funded by Arron Banks – it seems to have caught someone’s eye.
The press release said it showed Russia “being dragged into the domestic debate on Brexit” as part of a “wicked Russia thesis”. Written more in the language of a slighted lover than a nation state, it claimed that “this was “unfair”, and the government needed to “explain itself”. “We wouldn’t have dwelt on it,” it said, had the British government not alluded to the Russian threat “at every opportunity”. The Leave.EU team appeared to think so, too. A message from an employee to Banks and Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s press spokesman and Banks’s business partner, sent on the same day – 11 March 2016 – says: “Pretty strong stuff from the Russian embassy! Risky area but this might possibly be worth using for a tile?” (A “tile” is an image that they could use in social media messaging, on Twitter or other platforms.) [Continue reading…]