LONDON (Reuters) – Arron Banks, a British businessman who bankrolled one of the main campaigns for Brexit, will face questions from lawmakers on Tuesday about his links with Russia after a report said the connections went further and deeper than previously disclosed.
Britain has said it had not seen evidence of Russian interference in its votes, but lawmakers are investigating whether the country played a role in trying to influence public opinion before the EU referendum as part of a broader inquiry into “fake news”.
Banks will appear before lawmakers in a critical week for the government’s Brexit strategy, with Prime Minister Theresa May facing a series of key votes that could see a rebellion by those who want to retain closer ties with the EU.
The Sunday Times, citing emails it received from a journalist who worked with Banks on a book, said Banks and his associate Andy Wigmore had repeated contact with Russian officials both before and after the referendum campaign.
Banks had previously claimed in a book to have had only one meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s envoy in London, Alexander Yakovenko, in September 2015, but the newspaper said there were at least two further meetings.
Banks told the newspaper: “I had two boozy lunches with the Russian ambassador and another cup of tea with him. Bite me.”
“It’s a convenient witch-hunt, both over Brexit and Trump,” he added, referring to allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Banks said late on Saturday that he and Wigmore would appear before Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s fake news inquiry, reversing a decision to pull out two days ago.
“We look forward to seeing @DamianCollins & the committee as originally planned,” he said on Twitter. Collins, a member of the ruling Conservatives, chairs the committee.
Bank had said on Friday that it was “perfectly clear that the committee, which comprises only of Remain supporting MPs is conducting a co-ordinated ‘Witch Hunt’ of Leave groups.”
Supporters of Brexit say pro-Europeans are trying to undermine the referendum result with baseless allegations of Russian involvement so that they can push for a rerun of the vote. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Banks co-founded the Leave.EU campaign that is credited with mobilising grassroots support for Brexit. He did not answer emails and messages seeking comment on the Sunday Times report. Wigmore did not answer requests for comment.
May’s Brexit plan will begin its most severe test to date on June 12 when she asks her divided Conservatives to overturn changes made to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by parliament’s upper chamber.
Two Conservative lawmakers from opposites side of the Brexit divide — the pro-Remain former home secretary Amber Rudd and the leading Brexit supporter and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith — joined together on Sunday to urge support for May.
“When it comes to delivering the legislation necessary to make Brexit a smooth and orderly process, we both agree that every Conservative should march in lockstep behind the Prime Minister as she delivers on the vote,” they said in an article in the Sunday Telegraph.
Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Keith Weir