Leading Brexiteers grilled over links with Russia

A leading Brexiteer under fire over alleged links with Russia has called on the MP leading a parliamentary inquiry into fake news to step down after it was revealed he accepted hospitality from Roman Abramovich-owned Chelsea.

Leave.EU founder Arron Banks and the organisation's communications chief Andy Wigmore were being grilled by MPs on the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee over the conduct of their campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

But before questioning had even begun, Mr Wigmore challenged Damian Collins' right to chair the hearing, following reports on the Guido Fawkes website that the MP had received tickets to Stamford Bridge worth £1,000.

"In light of the fact that, according to Guido, you had some hospitality from Putin's number one man in the UK, do you not think you are a bit conflicted questioning us about this today?" asked Mr Wigmore.

"Perhaps you might want to recuse yourself and let one of the other people take over as chair?"

A laughing Mr Collins responded: "It's a nice try, Mr Wigmore. You may have better intel than me.

"I didn't know that Roman Abramovich was Putin's number one man in London, but you may know more than I do.

"All I can say is I got invited to the football, I didn't meet the owner, I wasn't offered Stalin's vodka, I'm not as good at pushing their buttons as you are."

He added: "I have declared in the Register of Members' Interests the acceptance of two tickets to watch Chelsea play Crystal Palace.

"There were no inducements or offers, no shares in gold mines, nothing transpired at that football match which would give this inquiry cause for concern. No honey traps."

Reports in the Sunday Times claimed Mr 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.

Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko
Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko

Mr Banks told LBC on Monday that he first met the ambassador over a "boozy lunch" but insisted there was "no evidence" that he had taken Russian money.

"We had about four shots of Stalin vodka, brandy, wine. We were pretty trolleyed. The ambassador was probably in a worse state than we were," he told LBC host Nigel Farage.

And he told Mr Collins at Tuesday's hearing: "You do know how it looks - you have hospitality or you meet Russians and then people write terrible things about you."

Mr Banks and Mr Wigmore confirmed that Leave.EU has on Tuesday lodged an appeal against an Electoral Commission finding that the organisation breached spending rules during the referendum.

Mr Banks also confirmed that 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.

However, he said they did not go ahead with the proposed work, as rival group Vote Leave won the battle for designation.

He confirmed that Leave.EU was put in touch with Cambridge Analytica by former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, but said he had only met the former Breitbart chief twice at that point.