Tom Watson calls for probe into Russia's Brexit role
Tom Watson has called for an investigation into whether the EU referendum was 'stolen' by the Russian state.
The deputy Labour leader said the British public deserves to know if Vladimir Putin played a role in the June 2016 poll, which saw Britain vote to leave the EU by a margin of more than 1.2 million.
The Remain-backing MP for West Bromwich East has called on the Government to confirm if the National Crime Agency (NCA) is investigating Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaign group co-founded by by former UKIP donor Arron Banks.
Mr Banks – who admitted to a parliamentary inquiry that he wasn't averse to leading voters 'up the garden path' over Brexit – has denied claims that he accepted Russian funding for the campaign.
Mr Watson was speaking at the Byline Festival in East Sussex, a left-wing event which also featured Gary Lineker, Badly Drawn Boy and Pussy Riot, as well as anti-Brexit workshops.
Considering a question over possible Russian involvement in skewing the referendum result, Mr Watson said: "We need to demand two things.
"Firstly, I think it is in the public interest for the government to confirm or deny that the NCA are currently investigating that [Russian involvement].
"And if they are not, I think there does need to be an adequately resourced public inquiry so the people will know the facts of that referendum.
"They want to know whether that referendum was stolen by the Russian state or not."
Calls for a probe into whether Putin played a role in the referendum have intensified in recent weeks, as Britain's March 29 EU departure draws closer.
Mr Banks, who was one of the largest donors to UKIP, gave £9m to Leave.EU which he says came from his personal wealth.
In May, Leave.EU was fined £70,000 for breaches of election law in the lead up to the referendum by, according to the Electoral Commission, failing to report 'at least' £77,380 it spent. The fine has gone to appeal.
He has also been grilled by MPs about his influence on global politics with Mr Banks laughing off the idea he was an 'evil genius with a white cat'.
However, reports earlier this month claimed he was offered support from a Kremlin bank as well as 'opportunities not available to others' ahead of the referendum.
Leaked documents detailed in a national newspaper detailed how Mr Banks was offered the chance of making potentially enormous profits in a deal featuring a Russian gold company.
The offer was reportedly made through Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador in London. It led to some MPs questioning whether Moscow sought to enrich leading Brexit campaigners in the run-up to the vote via a series of covert business deals.
Like Mr Watson, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has called for a public inquiry. He has urged ministers to establish a similar investigation to the one in the US led by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller into Russia’s role in subverting the 2016 presidential election.
In July, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee released an interim report on 'Disinformation and ‘fake news’', stating that Russia had engaged in 'unconventional warfare' through Twitter and other social media against the UK.
The move was designed to amplify support for a Leave vote, the report said.
Mr Banks' recently called on supporters of Leave.EU to join the Conservatives so they can vote in the party's next leadership election, ostensibly to elect a pro-Brexit candidate.
His own application for membership was rejected.