Drafting a diary at breakneck speed for someone who did not actually keep a diary was a crazy enterprise, made possible only because Banks and his irrepressible sidekick Andy Wigmore gave me access to their entire delicious email database, as well as all their text message records. Their correspondence with politicians, lobby journalists, the BBC, and everyone else from Posh Spice to NASA, made for hilarious reading and enabled us to piece together what is effectively a contemporaneous account of the referendum campaign.
It helped that both Banks and Wigmore had an incredible memory for detail and always inclined towards full exposure, however uncomfortable for those concerned, including themselves.
We have spared the blushes of some of my lobby colleagues (including the individual, who, late one night, accidentally sent a long cri de coeur about his/her ailing marriage, intended for his/her spouse, to an alarmed Banks.)
However, as the Mail touches on here (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3888076/Brexit-bloodletting-startlingly-candid-diary-tycoon-helped-bankroll-Leave-reveals-referendum-battle-FAR-toxic-thought-aimed-side.html) everyone else gets the full-on Banks treatment.
Banks’ attacks are almost always good humoured, and if reading his diary makes you laugh half as much as I did working with him and “Wiggy” Wigmore, I’ll have done a half decent job.
Here are some of my favourite extracts:
Poppy Day Panic
Bit of a shit-storm today after Wiggy posted a Remembrance Sunday-themed tweet suggesting that voting for Brexit would honour Britain’s war dead.
‘Freedom and democracy. Let’s not give up values for which our ancestors paid the ultimate sacrifice’ was his message of the day. We’d posted it along with a picture of an old Chelsea Pensioner whose views, I admit, we had no idea about. At least Wiggy had the sense to wait until after the two minutes’ silence, but predictably, everyone kicked off anyway, accusing us of ‘shameful opportunism’ etc.
Naturally, Britain Stronger in Europe lost no time leaping into the pulpit, issuing a sanctimonious statement to the effect that we should be ‘reflecting and honouring the fallen, not making crass political points’. Meanwhile, the usual gobshites started kicking off on Twitter. ‘Glad my relatives fought for your right to talk utter shite,’ was how one indignant bloke put it.
Wiggy had a brief stint in the forces, so I’m sure he knew it was going to cause trouble, but even he seemed a bit taken aback by the scale of the outcry. Naturally, Tice (who hadn’t been consulted) was very cross. ‘Bit fucking stupid. Not your best. Who authorised it?’ he demanded. Wiggy confessed it was him. ‘Not presenting us in a good light,’ Tice sniffed.
Nigel gave us an even more vehement rendition of his usual ‘no upside’ lecture. A little later that afternoon, when I gingerly logged into Twitter to see if the storm had abated, I saw the offending message had gone!
‘What happened to it?’ I asked.
‘I took it down,’ Andy replied quietly. He looked a bit wan, which is saying something for a man with a perma-tan. He told me sheepishly that he’d apologised ‘unreservedly’, which is not in the playbook, unless we’re doing it tongue in cheek. Said he’d tried to hose down the Daily Mail, who were threatening to turn us over.
‘What did you do that for? Put it back up!’ I instructed. We were getting a load of supportive emails from ex-servicemen.
So he did. That made three stories for the price of one. First for the original tweet; then a story about how we’d taken it down in shame; and then another story about how we’d brazenly put it back up again.
OK, it was probably all a bit crass, but I stand by the sentiments of the message, and we got loads of publicity. We’re slowly beginning to understand how the media works.
Foreign Press Association – A funny turn
Important Brexit debate today at the Foreign Press Association, with me as a key speaker. I was up against BSE director Will Straw, who I quite like, but who is not the most daunting opponent, so I had a few sound bites pre-cooked and wasn’t too bothered.
Or rather, I wasn’t too bothered until I woke up this morning feeling as if I’d been flattened by a truck. I was hoping breakfast at Claridge’s with Wiggy would clear my head, but I just wasn’t feeling myself. The truth is I was a bit nervous. TV’s one thing, with a couple of cameras and a pretty make-up girl, but having a horde of hacks eyeballing me like I’m addressing school assembly makes me twitchy.
Wiggy could see I was out of sorts. With a flourish, he produced some hokum-pokum herbal medicine he’d picked up on his travels. ‘Try this!’ he suggested. ‘Works a treat!’ I’m not usually one for weird stimulants, especially not in granular form, but given the challenge ahead, I thought it was worth a try.
‘What am I supposed to do with it?’ I asked.
Wiggy shrugged and suggested I just eat it, so I ambled off to the gents to wash it down with a glass of water. I was a bit unsure whether this was wise, but after seeing my tired reflection in the mirror, I decided I didn’t have much to lose. I gulped it down, not much enjoying the taste, and headed back to the reassuringly serene surroundings of the dining room.
‘I don’t feel anything,’ I told Andy. ‘What was that stuff?’
He assured me it was nothing untoward but seemed a bit concerned.
‘How much did you take?’ he asked.
‘All of it,’ I replied matter-of-factly. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Christ, Arron! I didn’t mean for you to take the whole lot!’ He quickly (and unconvincingly, I must say) composed himself. ‘Well, hopefully it will work. You should be full of beans.’
I was a bit concerned by his reaction and beginning to feel queasy, but the clock was ticking so we paid the bill for breakfast and set off for the debate. As we were heading out of the hotel, suddenly, to my horror, I realised I was going to be sick. There was no time to get back to the gents so I rushed towards the nearest hedge, where I promptly threw up. I don’t think anyone noticed, but embarrassed doesn’t cover it.
By now Andy was looking really worried.
‘What the hell was that stuff?’ I hissed, quite angry now and not a little alarmed. He didn’t say anything, but I could see he was uneasy. What was done was done, however, so we continued on our way.
By the time we arrived at the venue I was feeling truly terrible. The environment could not have been worse for someone feeling sick. The room was nauseatingly stuffy and the bright lights were making me sweat. As I surveyed the expectant-looking press pack, my head was spinning.
With a metaphorical drum roll, the organisers announced the keynote speakers and I wobbled up to the stage. Steeling myself, I began the opening statement I had prepared. I was only a few sentences in when I began feeling so weak at the knees I thought I might collapse.
Wrapping things up things up rather quicker than the hacks expected, I mumbled my apologies – ‘Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not feeling well’ – and staggered away from the lectern to a seat at the back of the stage.
‘Can someone get him a cup of tea?’ asked Wiggy brightly. ‘He’s recovering from a stomach bug.’
A few minutes later, warm tea inside me, I began feeling better. Top of the dial, in fact. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a sense of supreme confidence and wellbeing. It’s all going to be all right, I thought. I look good. I sound good. Everyone wants to hear what I have to say.
Straw’s performance was polished, slick even – but very far from the ‘positive and patriotic vision’ we’ve long been promised by those who wish to sell off our sovereignty for another generation. It was just a rehash of the old fear-mongering, half-truths and scare stories pro-EU types have been pitching for years – three million jobs lost, half our jobs disappearing, and all the rest.
Beaming, I bounded back up to the lectern just in time for the Q&A and gave what I thought was one of the best performances of my life.
Poor Will wasn’t up to much when he wasn’t giving a pre-prepared speech, with a fine old gentleman from the Norwegian press taking him to task over the way he was misrepresenting life beyond the gilded cage of EU membership. Will mumbled lamely about (literally) the price of cheese in Norway, receiving a pitying smile from the veteran journo.
‘Yes, Mr Straw, but, being outside the EU, we Norwegians can afford it.’
I held up under pressure rather better. Under fire from the German contingent, I pointed out how much damage the German-dominated euro was doing to countries along the Mediterranean.
‘But surely you are not a good European with this Brexit vote, Mr Banks?’
‘No, I’m not a good European, I’m British,’ I came back with a wink.
Gazing benevolently at my interrogators, I wondered if I might not be smiling a little too radiantly. (What on Earth was the active ingredient in Wiggy’s dubious elixir?!)
They all applauded. I gazed at them benevolently. I loved them.
Will Straw looked defeated; I reigned supreme. Baron Banks of Brexit.
But that’s the last time I trust Wiggy’s mystery medicine chest.
My general malaise was not improved by the reaction to our belated press release about recruiting Richard North. I’ve had a barrage of emails, including one from someone called Jeremy Wraith from the Sutton branch of UKIP, who says North is bombastic and always disparaging about the party. Richard put out something saying he’d be working with us as a consultant for the duration of the campaign ‘unless, of course, we fall out and slaughter each other’. Given our many run-ins so far, it’s entirely possible.
Anyway, North is not exactly a key figure. It is great for the campaign that the top three jobs in the office are now all-female – Liz Bilney, the CEO, plus Alison Marshall, finance director, and Caroline Drewett, who is in charge of getting businesses on board.
Tice’s media moment
I’m not the only one in demand on the airwaves: [Richard] Tice has also been getting requests. He’s been invited on Marr this weekend, and is very anxious to look his best. I tried not to chuckle at the thought of our handsome, clean-cut talisman fretting over how he’ll come across.
‘What’s your advice?’ he asked eagerly.
This was catnip to Wiggy.
‘Right, Richard, I hate to say this but you need a haircut,’ he replied gravely, gesturing at the long and far-too-lovingly groomed locks framing his own perma-tanned mug.
‘Oh,’ said our impeccably groomed corporate beast, sounding crestfallen.
‘I’m sure you know this already, but you’ve a good side and a bad side,’ Wiggy added.
Tice looked dismayed and suddenly self-conscious. Which side was his bad side? I suppressed a laugh.
Wiggy then mimed a sort of half-sitting, half-standing contortion.
‘And Richard, when you sit on the Marr Show couch you must keep really rigid as everyone wants to see your profile. Makes sure you can look at the interviewer, but don’t move your head, as that profile is what everyone wants to see.’
‘Oh, really, OK, I see,’ Ticey agreed, clearly not seeing at all.
By now he was quite worried. His malfunctioning humour circuits mean he struggles to detect jokes.
‘Plus, you’ve got to wear the right suit,’ added Wiggy gleefully. ‘We want to see your sex appeal. Right now you look as if you have just come from the City. We want people to like you, so nothing too buttoned up. Straightforward colours, nice tie, nice shirt, got it?’
Tice should have known it was a wind-up: Wiggy has a style of his own, and was delivering this lecture wearing a pair of brown suede loafers and bright yellow socks, but Gok Wan he is not.
I was tempted to mention the 1970s pornstar clobber he once bought for us in Lesotho when we were short of suitable attire for an unexpected invitation to visit the King, of all people, but I was enjoying the joke and thought it might put him off his stride.
Tice was swallowing the whole thing hook, line and sinker as surely as that shark Nigel caught in Belize.
‘What about make-up?’ he asked anxiously. Andy put him right: ‘I don’t want to disappoint, but they do that for you at the studio. And your hair,’ he said. Can’t wait to watch.
Going bananas in Bermuda
Wiggy arrived in Bermuda yesterday, and since then it’s all been a bit of a mess.
He and I like drinking as much as we like business but, unlike Nigel, we’re not very good at it. After a few pints we were a little light-headed. The deal we were doing was important, and to put it charitably we were so consumed by it (and our celebratory drinks) that we forgot Gerry [Gunster, American election strategist they were trying to recruit to the Brexit campaign] was coming. When we woke up this morning, we couldn’t really think beyond the rum we were sweating out, and took an executive decision not to move from the pool.
Suddenly Wiggy remembered the date. ‘Shit, Banksy! We’re supposed to be meeting Gerry!’
‘Cancel him,’ I said wearily. ‘I’ve got a really sore head.’
‘We bloody well can’t! The poor man’s flown all the way from the States to see us!’ Wiggy replied, not unreasonably.
‘Seriously, I’m not sure I can even muster the energy for lunch. Cancel him,’ I groaned, unreasonably.
Wiggy rang the Happy Hippy and spun a yarn about how we had to fly back to Blighty early. The Hippy was aghast. ‘You can’t fuck this guy off! He’s a real big shot in the States. Didn’t you read the emails I sent you? It’s too late!’ he snapped. I could hear him from my sun lounger, and it wasn’t helping my hangover. ‘I’ve worked my arse off to persuade this guy to see you. For Christ’s sake, sober up!’ At this point we thought we’d better face facts: one or both of us was going to have to leave the pool, tank up on coffee and get business-like.
Naturally, Wiggy hadn’t read Jimbo’s email with all the detail. Somehow he’d got it into his head that the meeting was due to take place at 11 a.m., when in fact it was not till afternoon. The upshot was that we had a hair-of-the-dog at midday, and then several more, while we sat in the hotel lobby at the Rosewood, Tucker’s Point, endlessly scanning the horizon for our hotshot adviser.
We had at least dressed the part. I was sporting orange Bermuda shorts with red socks – a horrible clash – while Wiggy had even baggier shorts in that dodgy light blue that Cameron used for the Conservative logo when he changed it from the old flaming torch to an eco-friendly tree. To complete the colonial look, he was wearing knee-high turquoise socks. We spent most of the afternoon carousing around the lobby, mojitos in hand, hailing every stranger with ‘Are you Gerry?’ which, after a few cocktails, seemed very funny.
Finally, a neat-looking gentleman appeared, a vision of corporate America, immaculately dressed in a dark blue suit, crisp white shirt, summoning all his professionalism to maintain a fixed smile as he surveyed the scene. Or at least Wiggy thought it was him. I had no idea and wasn’t really concentrating.
‘Come on, let’s pack it in. I think the Hippy must have cancelled him,’ I said. But the stranger was indeed our man! And from what I could tell through the alcoholic fug, he was pissed off.
‘Go and charm him,’ I urged. ‘Give him your poshest English accent. That always seems to work with Yanks.’
Summoning remarkable reserves of willpower, Wiggy staggered up, collected himself, and fixed our guest with one of his brightest smiles. ‘You must be Mr Gunster?’ he asked briskly, and proceeded to greet him like a long-lost friend.
It turned out that we’d neglected to tell Gerry where to meet us, and the poor man had been wandering around, unable to raise us on the mobile. He looked tired and hot. ‘Why don’t you go over the road and buy yourself some Bermuda shorts?’ I suggested helpfully. ‘You’ll feel better once you’re out of that suit.’ Relieved to get out of his shirt and tie, or just eager for our business, he trotted off, returning a few minutes later wearing some suitably silly shorts.
It quickly became apparent that this was a man with whom we could do business. It wasn’t that we had much in common – he seemed so polite and mild-mannered – but he was game for a laugh and soon got stuck into the drinks.
By 3 a.m., we were done. It was at this point that we realised we hadn’t even got him a room. He was still sitting there with his suitcase.
Fortunately, Wiggy declared that he had ‘a minor local difficulty’ to attend to in Belize, and should get a dawn flight.
‘You can have my room,’ he offered.
‘Thanks. Is everything OK? Some emergency?’ Gerry replied gratefully.
It was and it wasn’t. Wiggy explained that, in his capacity as a representative of the Belize government, there was a certain character he had to see in connection with the drugs trade, to try to persuade this individual to remain on the right side of the law.
There ensued a very serious discussion between the two of them about something called the ‘Kingpin Act’ and its attendant designation, with which Gerry seemed familiar, at least from a US point of view.
In 2015 there were only three drug barons in the whole world designated ‘Kingpins’ and, for entirely proper reasons, namely that this Kingpin designation was in danger of disrupting Belize’s banana trade, Wiggy was off to see one of the trio.
‘Ah,’ said Gerry, sounding understanding but hesitant.
Wiggy continued. There was a general election on in Belize, and the designated Kingpin owned a 10,000-acre banana plantation. In addition to supporting the livelihoods of some 25,000 locals, this also effectively accounts for 4–5 per cent of the Belizean economy. With the Kingpin Act preventing US nationals from doing any kind of business with the company in question, Belize was suffering from all kinds of serious financial and diplomatic complications, not least that 2,000 jobs were on the line.
A safe pair of hands was what was needed – someone with a mix of British charm and local nous. Wiggy explained that in his capacity as trade envoy he’d been sent to sort it out, and so, after polishing off his ninth mojito and leaving his Bermuda shorts on the bathroom floor, he departed, diplomatic passport in hand.
Our American friend absorbed all this. It was certainly a colourful tale and Wiggy was picture-perfect as a kind of late-Edwardian gentleman rogue, louche, frightfully British and off to the frontier to parlay with the local warlords, but it was all rather unorthodox. I noticed that Gerry was looking a bit pale.
Anxious not to lose our star player before he’d entered the pitch, I reassured him that Wiggy was on the side of the angels. ‘Things just work a bit differently in Belize,’ I said airily, and swiftly moved onto something more humdrum.
Let’s hope we haven’t freaked him out.
Game of Thrones
Back in the UK and just had the weirdest day. I got a call from a prominent UKIP supporter inviting me for a ‘beneficial chat’ about the referendum at his headquarters on Great Queen Street in London. Something about his tone struck me as odd, and when I looked up his address, I discovered that it was the UK headquarters of the Freemasons. Wiggy and I were both intrigued, and arranged to meet him at the pub opposite the building. This was an unnerving experience in itself: the other customers were in black and white costumes and were giving us funny looks.
We made nervous small talk until a dapper gentleman glided over and introduced himself as our man. ‘Let’s go over the road where we can talk privately,’ he suggested. Relieved to get out of the pub, we trotted behind him as he led us into Freemasons’ Hall, the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England. After passing through grand public areas, we arrived at what he called a ‘meeting room’, at one end of which were three impressive-looking thrones. The room had six identical internal doors with knockers, and a number of upside-down clocks. Wiggy and I did our best to act as if all this was very normal.
Our host drew us towards the thrones, and I was just about to sit myself down when he yelped at me to stop. ‘They’re reserved for Masters!’ he barked. He motioned to us to stand, while he took up position on the middle throne, which was flanked by two ornate wands.
The conversation began fairly conventionally, with some run-of-the-mill chit-chat about UKIP. Before too long, however, he began veering into conspiracy theories.
Wiggy and I exchanged desperate glances.
‘He’s mad!’ Wiggy mouthed.
I rolled my eyes.
‘Let’s go,’ I mouthed.
This was easier said than done. For a start, I couldn’t remember which of the six doors was the exit. Meanwhile, our host was only just warming up. We hovered uncomfortably while he rattled on about 9/11 being a CIA plot and other such rubbish. I could tell Wiggy was getting impatient. The novelty of our situation was wearing off. Without warning, he lunged towards one of the thrones.
‘Can I sit next to you?’ he asked brightly.
Without waiting for an answer, he plonked himself down.
Mr Mason blanched.
‘Get off that!’ he yelled.
Alarmed, Wiggy leaped to his feet, kicking over one of the antique wands in his haste.
Time stood still as the stick toppled over, and the silver dove on handle smashed on the floor.
‘That’s 300 years old!’ exclaimed Mr Mason. ‘Time you left!’
We needed no further encouragement.
Muttering our apologies, and trying desperately not to laugh, we bolted for what we hoped was a door that opened, leaving one very angry Freemason literally picking up the pieces.
‘Fuck me,’ said Wiggy. ‘That was nuts.’
I don’t suppose we’ll be invited back for another ‘beneficial chat’.
Preaching from the Pope
The latest big-shot foreigner debasing his office to lecture the British on how to govern their country is none other than the Pope. His Foreign Minister has said the Catholic Church would see our departure from the EU as ‘not something that would make a stronger Europe. Better in than out.’ I thought Henry VIII had seen off meddling Popes 500 years ago, but there you are.
The background music for this papal preaching is all the talk during the migrant crisis about how nobody has been doing enough and how the Holy See is ‘not in favour of walls’. We lampooned this ludicrous rhetoric by posting pictures of the gargantuan stone ramparts that surround the pontiff’s own palace with the caption ‘Meanwhile, at the Vatican’.
Guardianistas love the papal intervention and are trying to use it to besmirch people with legitimate concerns about uncontrolled immigration. Time to point out just how immoral it is to recklessly encourage sea crossings that kill people in their thousands and pour dollars into smugglers’ pockets.
Anyway, if the EU is so great, why isn’t the Pope filling in his application form? Could it be because the Vatican’s finances are so dodgy they aren’t too keen on anyone having a look?
I instructed the social media team to get stuck in and make it really punchy.
I was working myself into a state of righteous indignation about all this when it suddenly occurred to me that Wiggy had gone curiously quiet.
‘I don’t think we should be going after the Pope,’ he said falteringly.
‘Why on earth not?’ I replied.
I was taken aback by his reticence. This is the guy who was kicked out of school for flogging communion wine when he was an altar boy, after all. Indeed, he’s so profane that I’ve heard it suggested the title of his memoirs should be Fuck a Priest, his favourite phrase when things are going awry.
‘Because I’m a Papal Knight,’ he admitted sheepishly.
Along with a string of other obscure titles that he has inexplicably picked up along the way (‘Queen’s Messenger’, ‘Senior Justice of the Peace’ and ‘Trade Representative of the Government of Belize’) it turns out that he’s a member of something called the Archconfraternity Guild of St Stephen. Apparently it’s especially for altar servers, though you’d have thought selling the wine might have proved a disqualification.
I gave him the ribbing he deserved, to which he looked quite wounded.
‘Have a look on my desk, mate, there’s a book on my Order there. It’s actually quite serious.’
When it comes to Wiggy, wonders never cease.
Anyway, Pope Francis is in good company. Goldman Sachs, the bank whose boss has said it’s doing God’s work on earth, is throwing money at BSE. A ‘substantial six-figure sum’, according to the reports. Golden Sachs quite likes the status quo? Quelle surprise.
If they’d offered us money, I’d have told them where to shove it.
Wiggy’s flown out and we’re off to the diamond mines. I am trying to look after my health, but you can always trust the BBC to up the blood pressure.
They’ve axed Nigel from the Wembley stadium debate just before polling day. This cannot be allowed. Instead they are giving the places to Boris, Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart. Two Tory ministers and their pet Labour MP – a straight VL line-up. By way of compensation, Nigel will be offered some BBC youth debate in Scotland where he can be assured a small audience and a hostile studio. He’d have a warmer reception in prison.
This calls for war. My plan is to publish the personal emails and phone numbers of everyone involved in this establishment stitch-up and get our supporters to demand that the leader of the only UK-wide genuinely anti-EU party be included in what could be the most important televised debate of our lifetime. My targets are Robbie Gibb, Elliott, Cummings, Carswell and VL’s head of press, Robert Oxley. I would include Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, if I had his number, but I can’t get hold of it, so we’ll have to make do with his email.
Andy didn’t like this one bit when I mentioned it. He spent months cultivating Robbie and is worried someone may have a go at us under harassment or breaching data protection laws.
‘They’re public representatives, public campaigners and public broadcasters; why shouldn’t the public be able to let them know how they feel?’ I protested.
We decided to go for it – a letter to all our subscribers, and public posts to our Facebook followers.
I caught Andy in the dining room making a sneaky call to Mishcon de Reya to get some legal advice and quickly put a stop to his nonsense. ‘No calls. Just get it all out there.’
They are all in for a big surprise.
Well, that certainly kicked the hornets’ nest. We published the phone numbers, and the party started. Hall’s and Gibb’s email boxes both crashed in minutes. Gibb was straight on the phone to Andy, in his trademark hurt-not-angry tone.
‘I can’t do my job, I just can’t,’ he railed.
Andy was chain-smoking on the deck outside, sheepishly trying to placate him. It was a good thing I warned him not to give up smoking a year ago. While he was getting his ear chewed off, Nigel was frantically trying to reach me.
Wiggy looked a bit shaken when he finished with Robbie.
I laughed: ‘Oh well, Andy, another bridge burned. And nine missed calls from Nigel – that might be a new record.’
Finally, we thought we better ring him back. He likes Robbie and we knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.
‘You’ve gone too far!’ he bellowed.
I put him on speaker phone so Andy could hear, though, given the volume of the shouting, it wasn’t really necessary.
‘What next? Are you going to adopt ISIS tactics and blow up Television Centre? Throw bricks through their windows?’
Meanwhile, Chris Bruni-Lowe, Farage’s right-hand man, was dealing with a fire-breathing Douglas Carswell. Old Popeye’s battery had been run flat by at least 2,000 calls. Rob Oxley must have been delighted by his sudden fame, but he pretended to disapprove.
‘Angry phone calls only last a few minutes, true class lasts forever’, he tweeted sanctimoniously.
Having thrown the grenade, I was thoroughly enjoying watching the explosion. But Nigel was furious. He told us there was ‘no upside’ to our mischief and complained about having to run around cleaning up our mess.
Eventually, we reluctantly removed the contact details from Facebook. Our supporters were getting very passionate, bombarding our friends at the BBC with ALL CAPS texts about the ‘BIASED BRUSSELS CORPORATION’.
We’d made our point.
The Electoral Commission weren’t the only people who had it in for us today. When I was at my grisly worst, Andy emailed me one word – ‘HELP’ – above a long missive from Dominic Kennedy at The Times. And, oh God, it got worse. The gigolo story was back to haunt us.
Basically, Kennedy had been on a general muckrake, trying to find everything he could on just about any foreigner we’d ever known so he could make a fuss about ‘overseas influence’ on our campaign.
He was planning to run a load of nonsense about me being married to a Russian who has ‘MI5’ in her car number plate – obviously a spy, then. Jim Mellon lives on the Isle of Man (shock!), Wiggy works for the Belize government (blimey!), and so on.
Then, he managed to dig up the gigolo saga – and what a tangled tale it is.
Back in the mid-1990s, Andy worked for a massively off-the-wall late-night TV programme called the James Whale Radio Show. They decided to do an ‘investigation’ into ‘the male escort industry’ and Wiggy was duly dispatched to pose as the man for hire. The slight problem was that it meant moonlighting from his day job running a think tank, where he got to hobnob with the senior ranks of the Conservative Party. The Sunday Mirror heard what he was up to and did what any self-respecting tabloid would do: dispatched a foxy female news reporter to honey-trap the honey-trapper. That weekend, Wiggy duly found his grinning mug all over the paper under the headline ‘Tory Mr Fix-It Is £1,000 Sex Stud’ – although he likes to claim the reporter was given a freebie.
In the normal scheme of things he likes nothing more than regaling an incredulous audience with this yarn over a few drinks. He thinks it gives him a certain mystique. But seeing the 25-year-old story in black and white in tomorrow’s Times is another matter. It’s not a great look for business or for the campaign, and it’s certainly not going to amuse his wife Cath, who can do without getting scandalised side-eye at the school gates. We had to act.
The result is that another fat bill from Mishcon de Reya will be heading our way. Wiggy had to spend half the afternoon briefing the lawyers on the phone in very serious tone. Mishcon’s had been his lawyers when the story first rolled round and were fully aware of the details: no, he’d never been a £1,000-a-night escort, and no, he hadn’t been paid vast sums of money to take the virginity of an Arab girl as her 16th birthday present, as the original Sunday Mirror ‘scoop’ suggested.
In the end Mishcon fired off an urgent missive to Times editor John Witherow, making it clear the whole thing was nonsense and threatening to sue.
There is a curious sequel to the gigolo saga which I suspect The Times won’t run tomorrow.
During that same colourful period in Wiggy’s life, a young Times journalist by the name of Michael Gove falsely accused him of hawking stories about sleazy Tories to the tabloids. This was at the height of John Major’s ill-fated ‘back to basics’ campaign promoting traditional family values, so tittle-tattle about politicians with their pants down was gold dust.
Gove stuck the allegation into a biography he was writing of Michael Portillo, seen by some as the party’s great hope at the time. This time Wiggy did sue – and won. The publishers had already printed the book and the whole thing had to be pulped, at a personal cost to young Gove (or so Wiggy claims) of £10,000.
Given Gove’s Vote Leave affiliation and the Times connection, it didn’t take Wiggy more than two minutes to put two and two together. He’s convinced this whole story is a Cummings/Gove job.
Farage rang this evening, ostensibly to cheer him up, but really just to tease.
‘I’m going to start calling you Deuce Wigalow,’ he threatened, referring to the title character of a 1999 comedy about a rent boy. I think the nickname is going to stick.
A flea in the ear
Whether it’s party leaders whose time is up or backbenchers who defy the whip, the Tories like sending ‘men in grey suits’ to sort things out.
Today Vote Leave tried the same technique on us.
My heart sank when I heard that the dismal Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling, the greyest of the grey, wanted to come to Lysander House to talk about how we can work together in the next few weeks. When I see him on TV, he has the same effect on me as one of those Dementors from Harry Potter – I can feel all the life just draining right out of me. How much worse will the effect be in real life?
He duly appeared this morning and I did my level best not to show that being in his presence was easing me little by little into a mini-coma. Within about thirty seconds, it became apparent that his mission was to whip us into line. When I clicked, I was delighted. It was an opportunity for some mischief.
‘You’re very close to Nigel Farage aren’t you?’ he asked, by way of an opening gambit.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, we’ve all got to work together now on the campaign,’ Grayling instructed, and drearily recited the Vote Leave mantra: no talking about immigration. He droned on for a while, making it clear that Vote Leave won’t be campaigning on the issues that really interest people, just regurgitating a free-market spiel about the wonders of globalisation and how Europe is holding us back.
After five minutes of this, I was entering what people who meditate call the ‘Delta’ stage, when your brain waves become so slow you are essentially asleep. I let it all wash over me, smiling occasionally, just to reassure him I was still awake.
Finally, he stopped talking, at which point I suddenly jolted back to life. By now he was already looking at his watch, as if he had another appointment. So, just to piss him off, I made him sit for two and a half hours while I gave him a taste of his own medicine, jabbering on about anything and everything I could think of.
I started with Conservative education policy, a conversation I succeeded in stringing out for an eternity, before moving him on to detailed discussions about the challenges facing other departments.
It seemed to put him in reflective mood, and he began complaining about the travails of his job.
‘You don’t know what it’s like to be a minister,’ he said at one point. ‘You can’t get anything done. You try to cut anything and they stop you… It’s just not as easy as you think. You’re just a businessman,’ and all that patronising kind of stuff you get from politicians.
Eventually I ran out of steam and decided to let him go.
But the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became that Vote Leave was now trying to dictate our approach.
We might yet have gone our separate ways on civilised terms, had it not been for his parting shot.
‘Well, are you going to try and control Nigel? You’ve got to try,’ he enquired, as I walked him to the car park.
‘Absolutely not,’ I replied, bristling. ‘How dare you come to my office and tell me ‘Oh, you’ve got to control Nigel’?!’
‘I just wasted my whole last three hours, didn’t I?’ he asked, looking greyer than ever.
‘Yeah, pretty much!’ I replied brightly. ‘There’s your car.’ I gestured at the vehicle, like I was swatting away a fly. ‘There you go, get out.’
So I basically told him to fuck off.
Texted Nigel straight away to tell him what had happened, informing him that I’d sent Grayling away ‘with a flea in his ear’.
At least we now have confirmation – as if there has ever been any doubt – that they plan to airbrush Nigel out this referendum campaign. Good luck to Vote Leave with that.
Gerry and the Russians
Gerry is in the UK for two weeks, and I suggested he and his colleague Rob Leggat stay at Old Down tonight.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten Katya’s mum was having a birthday party and I was expected to put in an appearance. It was the last thing I felt like doing, especially with Gerry, but in the interests of marital harmony I reluctantly agreed.
When I broke the news to Gerry, he didn’t exactly sound enthusiastic and I can’t say I blame him. It’s bad enough going to your own mother-in-law’s party, never mind someone else’s. I told him not to worry about what to wear and assured him he wouldn’t stay long.
By the time I got home from work, the party was already in full swing. I waited for Gerry to arrive, and we made our way to the function room at Old Down. It was at this point that we began to notice that everyone was wearing strange clothes.
Already slightly bewildered, we headed to the bar, where the first person Gerry encountered was a tall man wearing a black suit and a large white hat.
‘Hello, I’m Gerry, from the States,’ he announced politely.
‘I’m a White Russian,’ the fellow replied confusingly.
Neither of us had any idea what was going on.
I assumed the man was referring to the cocktail in his hand, until it belatedly dawned on me that we were at a murder mystery party. The guests had all been primed to play a part. Except us.
I’d rocked up in my gym kit, Gerry was in his slacks, and everyone else was some kind of Cluedo character.
Before I’d had time to make any introductions, someone thrust a piece of paper in Gerry’s hand and I was dragged off to talk to one of my Russian relatives. Through the mêlée, I could see him studying the piece of paper, trying to get his head round the instructions for the part he was supposed to play.
After ten minutes, I decided to do a runner. Much as I love my in-laws, after a long week at the office, it was all too much. By now Gerry was on the other side of the room, looking alone and confused. I didn’t dare make my way through the throng to tell him I was leaving, for fear of being waylaid by some cousin or aunt and getting stuck for another half-hour. So I abandoned him to his fate.
As I slunk out of the house, hoping nobody would notice, I bumped into my son Peter.
‘Go and rescue Gerry,’ I instructed. ‘He’s the American. The one not dressed up.’
I sat outside in the car waiting. A few minutes later, Gerry bolted out of the house looking ashen.
‘What was that all that about?’ he demanded.
All I could say is that the Russians are a law unto themselves. I’ve never seen anyone look so relieved to get away from a party.