EU referendum: Eurosceptic rivals hold peace talks to mend Out campaign rift

Leaders met with multi-millionaire Ukip donor Aaron Banks, who is bankrolling the rival Leave.EU campaign

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Indy Politics

The two rival Eurosceptic groups bidding to lead the Out campaign in the referendum on Britain’s EU membership  have held secret peace talks to try to patch up their differences and end the acrimonious public rows that have beset their campaigns, The Independent has learnt.

The leaders of the Tory dominated Vote Leave campaign met on 28 January with multi-millionaire Ukip donor Aaron Banks, who is bankrolling the rival Leave.EU campaign.

The meeting, which lasted several hours, took place at the Mayfair private members club 5 Hertford Street, which is owned by the socialite businessman Robin Birley, who himself has strong connections with the Eurosceptic cause.

Significantly, the Vote Leave campaign was represented by Matthew Elliott, its chief executive, while Dominic Cummings, the organisation’s campaign director, was not invited. Mr Cummings has in the past ruled out any merger with Leave.EU and has been involved in a very public spat with Mr Banks.

Earlier this month, Mr Banks wrote a letter to Mr Elliott suggesting Mr Cummings should be sacked and warning that he had “become a liability and a danger to both Leave campaigns”. Some senior Tory MPs on the board of Vote Leave have also been attempting to force out Mr Cummings after rows over strategy. One source claimed Mr Cummings had threatened to “bring the house down” if he was sacked.

The crisis meeting comes after weeks of sniping by both sides in the Eurosceptic campaign over who is best placed to receive so-called “designated status” to lead the Out campaign and get access to more than half a million pounds of public funds. 

But a source said the meeting had failed to reach any deal and that Mr Elliott refused any type of merger with Leave.EU. He is understood to have the backing of Vote Leave’s major donors, although Tory Eurosceptic MPs on the organisations board are pushing him to reconsider.

“Nothing was decided,” the source said. “Matthew said he was prepared to work with Leave.EU but not merge with them and Aaron kept on pushing for a merger. At least both sides are talking.”

The meeting was also attended by the multi-millionaire Vote Leave donor – and Labour donor – John Mills, as well as the Tory MP Peter Bone who has set up his own cross party Eurosceptic campaign group called Grassroots Out.

But The Independent understands that Grassroots Out is receiving financial assistance from Mr Bank’s group, leading to claims by rivals that it is being used as a front to get designated funding status itself. 

Leave.EU has seconded Richard Murphy, its highly rated director of field campaigning, to Grassroots Out despite the fact he was only hired by Mr Banks’s operation in December.

Mr Murphy is a former head of Conservative Party campaigning, who took on a consultancy role at Leave.EU. At the time, Andy Wigmore, its director of communications, said his appointment was “crucial to the campaign’s success”. But rivals suspect that Mr Bank’s is deliberately building up Grassroots Out so that it is in a position to challenge Vote Leave for “designated status”. Leave.EU itself is highly unlikely to be approved by the Electoral Commission because it is not regarded as sufficiently cross party to qualify. A spokesman for Leave.EU claimed Mr Murphy had never actually started working for them.