The bankroller of Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign has spent most of 2020 in New Zealand, where he became an ardent supporter of Winston Peters and the NZ First Party – and the feeling appears to be mutual. Justin Giovannetti on the puzzle of a polarising British political figure and a small party in a small country on the other side of the world.
One of the fathers of Brexit has spent much of the past five months in Auckland, where he enjoyed the sea breeze, watched the UK’s mishandling of Covid-19 from afar and became a vocal online supporter of Winston Peters.
Arron Banks, a brash British entrepreneur who amassed a fortune before throwing himself into the leave campaign, financed and directed one of the most aggressive groups pushing for Brexit. Unexpectedly, Banks and the Leave.EU campaign have over recent months become champions of a small political party more than 10,000 miles away: New Zealand First.
Despite New Zealand’s distance and near irrelevance to Brexit, a group that rose to prominence and power during the leave campaign has now chosen to promote the New Zealand deputy prime minister and his party.
In numerous tweets over the past months, Banks and Peters have expressed strikingly similar opinions and concerns. The largely British audience of Banks and Leave.EU have been served dozens of retweets of material from NZ First and its leader. A handful of memes highlighting Peters have also been created.
The account’s nearly 295,000 followers have learned about the future of certain statues and placenames in New Zealand, allocations of the Provincial Growth Fund and the slaying of a police officer in Auckland. The British audience has also been told about the deputy prime minister’s thoughts on the singing of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ at English rugby matches. The last few months have seen more weight given to views expressed by Peters, who leads a New Zealand party of nine MPs, than those of the British prime minister, Boris Johnson.
“If we start taking these calls to stop singing ‘Swing Low’ at rugby matches seriously then where does it stop? Getting rid of our All Black haka because it’s too threatening or culturally inappropriate for non-Māori to perform? Get a grip,” Peters tweeted on June 19.
“Well said,” responded Banks.
Leave.EU has also created several posts about New Zealand’s wins against coronavirus and thanked Peters for his leadership in the crisis – no mention is made of the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
After Peters spoke with the Telegraph’s weekly politics podcast Chopper’s this week, the support of New Zealand’s deputy prime minister for a new yacht for the Royal Family was turned into a graphic by Leave.EU.
On June 9, the group shared a Covid-19 meme quoting Peters as saying “we can’t just run the country for the timid, we’ve got to run the country for those who want to be free.” Peters made the statement on Newstalk ZB the previous day when asked about New Zealand’s pending move to level one and the prospect of a “trans-Tasman bubble” with Australia.
Intended for a British audience, the Leave.EU post added that “Coronavirus has become a religion of fear, and fit and healthy people at virtually no risk refuse to live their lives. Enough is enough!” There was no mention of the fact that New Zealand had successfully eliminated the virus from the community.
While the two men might politically be fellow travellers, the level of interest shown in Peters and New Zealand is hard to explain.
Last week The Spinoff reached out to Banks and asked to speak with him about his interest in Peters. He has a winning record as a campaigner, with his fingerprints all over one of the greatest political upsets of the past decade. Banks has also shown a knack for using social media to connect with voters who are overlooked by political parties. That touch would be an asset for Peters and NZ First, which polls show could be facing political oblivion in September.
After a day of trying to reach Banks on his mobile, he responded via email last Wednesday afternoon and said he could speak later in the evening at around 9.30pm New Zealand time. He was back in the UK, he said, and would be free to speak then.
He said he’d prefer to call. Unfortunately he didn’t. The next day he said in an email that the call would need to be postponed until the following week. He hasn’t responded to a series of emails or phone calls since to reschedule. He has continued to tweet throughout that time.
The Spinoff wanted to ask Banks whether he has a role in NZ First’s campaign preparations before the general election. Whether, during his months in New Zealand, he met with Peters or offered him advice. And whether it is a coincidence that in tone and even in style, NZ First’s online presence has begun to take on a flavour of Leave.EU over the past few weeks.
On Tuesday morning, the Spinoff reached out to NZ First for comment on the connection with Banks and the group.
A party spokesperson directed The Spinoff to Darroch Ball, a list MP based in Palmerston North. The spokesperson said Ball was now responsible for the party’s communications and would field the questions for Peters. Ball did not respond to seven phone calls and text messages over the following six hours. The spokesperson did not respond to four additional phone calls, but in a text message directed the Spinoff to a second spokesperson. As of last night that second spokesperson had not responded to any of four phone calls and text messages.
Banks entered New Zealand on January 12, long before most people became aware of the threat posed by Covid-19. His son entered a term exchange at an Auckland school and he wanted to be near him.
When Covid-19 struck, he found himself on the other side of the world from half his family. Speaking with an American-based website from the deck of his Auckland rental, Bank said he’d been running daily in the orchards and was “quite chilled out actually” in New Zealand.
He said he found in New Zealand an older version of his home country. “New Zealand does remind me of happier times in the UK … and I’ll certainly be back next year,” he tweeted before his return to the UK in the past few weeks. He has continued to tweet about Peters since leaving New Zealand.
A self-described Brexit “bad boy”, Banks made his money through his ownership of insurance companies. He also owns African diamond mines. In 2017, Britain’s Sunday Times said he was worth about NZ $480 million. Through his support of the UK Independence Party and Leave.EU, he is believed to have made the largest donations in British history by an individual to a political campaign.
The former head of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has also expressed admiration for Peters in the past. Farage and Peters have bonded over cricket and a political platform built on opposition to immigration.
The Eurosceptic leader and Banks have worked closely for years. The pair helped turn the Brexit vote into a question where British voters could express a grievance with the way the country was changing under what they characterised as a smug ruling class. Opponents saw it as a way of expressing xenophobia through the ballot box.
While there is little legally stopping Banks from helping Peters with advice, any personal monetary contribution would be capped at $50. Certainly the two men appeal to a similar demographic, said University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis, but that doesn’t mean Banks should be invited into New Zealand’s political system.
“The form of politics that led to the Brexit vote, which Arron Banks was involved with, was typified by rampant misinformation and appealing to naked prejudice in the electorate. My view is that importing that type of politics into New Zealand would be detrimental to our democracy,” said Geddis.
Banks, whom Farage has described as “pugnacious”, wrote in his book The Bad Boys of Brexit that political campaigns should be blunt, edgy and controversial to create media attention and garner free publicity.
On June 12, a combative Peters put out a statement decrying the “woke generation” after the statue of John Hamilton was winched from the central square of the city named after the British captain.
The statement was blunt, edgy and controversial.
“Why do some woke New Zealanders feel the need to mimic mindless actions imported from overseas,” asked Peters in the statement, where he shared his “disgust” with people calling for the statue’s removal. In his parting words, Peters said they need to: “Deal with it, grow up and read a book.”
The fiery statement followed days of attention from Banks and Leave.EU on statues being pulled down in the UK. Did one of the men most closely tied to Brexit give Peters the idea to go after the woke generation? Is one of the most polarising figures in Britain leaving an imprint in New Zealand politics? We don’t know. And no one seems to want to answer questions about it.