Isabel Oakeshott – a long-standing Brexit supporter who has close links to the Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft – has, by her own admission, been aware of emails linking Arron Banks to Russian officials and businessmen since the end of last year.
“It was always my intention to publish this information,” Oakeshott has insisted, in the face of accusations she chose to sit on potentially explosive information for political reasons.
The ultimate source for the material was Banks himself, after he employed Oakeshott, a former political editor of the Sunday Times, during summer 2016 to ghostwrite a diary-style account of the referendum entitled: Bad Boys of Brexit.
The rush-released book – which included an erroneous story on the very first page about a photographer being sent to catch Nigel Farage naked in a sauna – was written by Oakeshott in 10 weeks flat and helped cement Banks’s claims, disputed by leading members of the rival Vote Leave group, to have been central to the Brexit campaign.
At the time Oakeshott described how Banks and his right-hand-man, Andy Wigmore, had given her “access to their entire delicious email database, as well as all their text message records” to help her write the book.
Over the weekend, according to Oakeshott, some of the files were provided digitally, while others came in paper format. The journalist claims that at the time she was not looking for Russian material and the emails were left to gather “dust in my attic”, only appreciating their significance when she revisited the material at the end of 2017 for a book she is co-writing with Ashcroft on defence funding.
This changed last week when she called Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who in conjunction with the freelance reporter Peter Jukes, had obtained some of the material and intended to publish it. At one point Oakeshott appeared willing to cooperate with the Observer but by Saturday evening it was clear that the material had been counter-briefed to the Sunday Times, which splashed on the story accompanied by a piece from the pro-Brexit journalist.
Oakeshott has since stated that the emails were obtained via an individual who hacked her online storage account, and others have suggested that the newspaper was involved in this, something that has been disputed by Guardian News and Media, which owns both the Guardian and the Observer.
“Our reporters were given access to documents which support these serious allegations in line with normal journalistic practices,” said a spokesperson.
“We have done thorough due diligence and have documentary and verbal evidence to support our reporting. Those at the heart of this story have significant questions to answer about who they met, when, and why they did not see fit to declare any of this until contacted by the Observer on Friday 8 June.”
Oakeshott did not respond to multiple attempts to contact her on Monday. At the weekend she said she remained in contact with Banks and Wigmore but it was a “grave mistake on their part to forge these links” with Russian officials.
Oakeshott herself has been willing to make links with the Russian security services in the past. Her last major book was a biography of David Cameron entitled Call Me Dave, which was co-written with Ashcroft and serialised over several days in the Daily Mail.
In the book Oakeshott and Ashcroft describe attempting to contact “current Kremlin and KGB” individuals for information on the then prime minister, before being summoned to a five-star hotel in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi to meet a “very high-level source” and going on to meet figures at the Russian parliament.
Isabel Oakeshott (@IsabelOakeshott)
Final meetings at the Duma with @LordAshcroft pic.twitter.com/MNo0sTfpIg
May 15, 2015
After reporting the critical views of anonymous Russian security sources on Cameron, Oakeshott and Ashcroft suggest it was possible that Cameron should have adopted a “more sophisticated and pragmatic stance” towards Russia and it could have had extra long-term benefits.
Call Me Dave prompted a week’s worth of headlines over the claim the former prime minister put his penis in a dead pig at a University of Oxford party, eventually forcing Cameron into a public denial.
The story garnered global attention, with pigs becoming a regular symbol at anti-Tory protests. However, Oakeshott later told a book festival that the source for her story “could have been slightly deranged” and admitted she would have struggled to get the story into the Sunday Times.
She added that there is “no need for burden of proof on a colourful anecdote where we’re quite upfront about our own reservations about whether to take it seriously”.
For her efforts Oakeshott was, despite some protestations from some Daily Mail reporters, briefly handed the title of Daily Mail political editor-at-large by the editor, Paul Dacre.
Her earlier brush with infamy came when, as political editor of the Sunday Times, Oakeshott worked with the economist Vicky Pryce to undermine Pryce’s ex-husband Chris Huhne, who at the time was a Liberal Democrat cabinet minister. Oakeshott’s employers were ultimately ordered to hand over private email correspondence between Oakeshott and her source to the police. At a later trial Pryce and Huhne were found guilty of perverting the course of justice over a speeding offence and were both sent to jail.