Nigel Farage has been accused of being behind a “blatant Ukip front operation” to ensure that a group of alleged party sympathisers secure official designation as the main no campaigners in the EU referendum.
The Electoral Commission has to designate a yes and a no campaign, which will both be given air time, a public grant and spending limits, as it did in the Scottish referendum campaign. Farage, the Ukip leader, has come under fire after Arron Banks, a major party donor, wrote to the commission to request that a new Eurosceptic group, The Know, is designated as the official no campaign.
Senior figures in the group have sought to distance themselves from Ukip and other political parties as they insist that they are running a non-political campaign based “outside the Westminster bubble”.
But internal emails passed to the Guardian show deep links between Ukip and The Know. The director of communications for The Know, Andy Wigmore – who campaigned alongside Banks in the general election wearing a Ukip rosette – tweeted “That’s You @Nigel_Farage” to suggestions that he is the right person to lead the no campaign.
A Ukip internal email shows the party is supportive of The Know. It stated: “The ‘Out’ campaign is gathering momentum – you will have seen the announcement this week about THE KNOW group being built by leading businessmen ... Understand that right now, we are the campaign: we have the ground troops, the national network and the clear proposition. Invite others to work with you and cooperate on themed meetings, show stands etc, and tone down the Ukip branding if it helps others take part – but don’t let them slow you down or cover you up.”
The new group’s chief executive, Liz Bilney, wrote in an email to supporters that The Know would keep its distance from politics. She said: “Politics has become toxic and people simply don’t trust politicians or lobby groups to tell the truth.”
But the group, which ran a series of advertisements on Thursday in national newspapers including the Guardian, was launched by the multimillionaire Ukip donor Banks. The group hopes that if it can show that it has widespread support beyond established political parties, it will be able to persuade the commission to designate it to head the campaign to leave to the EU.
A senior Eurosceptic source at the heart of discussions about establishing the no campaign said: “Banks and Farage want to capture official designation of the no campaign, taking the air time and money that goes with it. The donors and senior staff at the Banks campaign are all from Ukip while the director of communications has already said Farage is the right person to lead the no campaign. It’s pretty obvious what they are trying to do, it’s a blatant Ukip front operation that won’t fool the Electoral Commission or attract support from across the political spectrum.”
A Ukip spokesman said: “We will work with anybody to campaign to take Britain out of the EU. The Arron Banks operation has resources, imagination and vim. They are good people but they are their own bosses.”
A cross-party pro-EU campaign funded by the millionaire former Labour donor Lord Sainsbury of Turville is expected to be launched in the autumn.
Farage said on Thursday that he has no intention of seeking to win official designation to act as the leader of the no campaign. Speaking at the launch of a grassroots nationwide Ukip campaign to drum up support for a no vote, he said: “Ukip will lead this ground campaign in the country. But that is not the same as saying that this is some dramatic bid by me or the others in this room to think that Ukip will get the official designation for the no campaign. We won’t and we won’t be applying.”
Wigmore, who is also a diplomat for Belize in London, said the group would welcome Farage’s involvement. But he insisted the Ukip leader would not be the group’s main figurehead. “Nigel is going to have a role to play – of course he is,” Wigmore said. “But he is certainly not someone we want to front the campaign ... Ukip will do what Ukip has to do. The reality is that Nigel is Marmite. People either like him or they don’t. He is going to alienate a group of people. But he is the only politician who doesn’t seem to be afraid of Cameron or Osborne and as a consequence he has put his head above the parapet early on.”
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th July 2015 19.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010