EU Referendum: Is Liz Bilney The Woman Who Could Lead Us Out Of The EU?

Liz Bilney

Liz Bilney is not a big fan of interviews.

The chief executive of Leave.eu, one of the two campaign groups calling for Britain to get out of the European Union, barely relaxes during our half an hour conversation.

Sitting in the plush surroundings of the Fleming Hotel in Mayfair after an afternoon meeting, Bilney speaks carefully, articulately and precisely as she spells out her role in the group, co-founded by larger-than-life Ukip donor Arron Banks.

As someone who could potentially play a major part in getting Britain out of the EU, the 39-year-old businesswoman from Cardiff is difficult to read.

She repeatedly emphasises how non-political she was before joining Leave.eu – which is an unusual position for someone who is hoping to drive through the biggest political change this country will have seen since 1973.

Perhaps at the back of her mind is another interview she has recently given - her appearance on Sky News in October.

Bilney was invited on to discuss the EU referendum, and in her opening salvo lost her train of thought, stumbled over her words and appeared to be in a state of shock the whole time.

As we supped tea and ate sandwiches and scones, Bilney laughed as I raised the interview with her.

"Was that the first time you’ve done anything like that?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"Did you enjoy it?"

"No," was her very definite response.

She added: “My role is to run the campaign from an operational perspective and that’s what I need to stick to doing.”

“So you won’t be doing much more of that stuff?” I ask.

“No,” Bilney replied, with a laugh.

In many ways, it’s a shame we won’t be seeing more of Bilney on our TV screens, as in the tired old world of eurosceptism, there are not many new faces.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Tory veteran Sir William Cash, and – before his about turn after becoming Labour leader – even Jeremy Corbyn, have all been campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union for years.

With a referendum on the UK’s membership due before the end of 2017, it is already looking like it will be the same old faces making the same old points.

The overwhelming majority of those in the anti-EU brigade are male, white, of a certain generation, and from the oft-derided Westminster bubble – and that includes seven-time parliamentary candidate Nigel Farage.

A new person on the scene – who, let’s be honest, doesn’t tick the ‘male, pale and stale’ boxes would be welcomed.

Bilney is not sure about being front and centre, and said: “I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy being interviewed, because it’s not something I’ve ever looked for in my career.

“It’s horses for courses. I really enjoy building companies, working on projects and campaigns and that’s where I get my satisfaction, seeing how well we’re doing.

“The journalistic side, that’s not my strength but I know that people would find it interesting to talk about so I guess you could say it’s part and parcel of the responsibility of the job. I wholly endorse that and try my very best.

She adds: “I’m not looking for any secondary career out of this, and I don’t think I’ll be offered it either.”

Eurosceptism is not something that has been getting her out of bed in the morning, unlike die-hard anti-EU veterans such as Farage.

For Bilney, her view the UK should leave the EU is based on cold analysis of the facts, not a heated reaction to the notion that Britain is subservient to another flag or anthem.

“I’m a very logical person and because I’m so non-political I didn’t really have a view at the beginning of it.

“Running a company I began to see difficulties with the EU in terms of the bureaucracy, the legislation. It actually does cost money to adopt all the policies.”

She claims that under EU law “you are not allowed to recruit an experienced person because that’s discriminatory.”

Leave.eu has spent the past few months building up its social media presence, and Bilney admits the group has been looking at the success of Barack Obama’s online campaigning presence for inspiration.

It operates a call centre in Bristol, from which 60 people call supporters, engage with people on Facebook and Twitter and even sale merchandise.

At a press conference last month, group co-founder Richard Tice claimed the group already had more 300,000 registered supporters and more than 200 branches across the country.

Arron Banks, the Ukip donor and group co-founder, said Leave.eu had already spent £2million in the campaign.

As well as online campaigning, the group is keen to recruit “ambassadors” – leave.eu supporters drawn from the public who can help convince people to vote to leave.

Bilney said the group wants “border control officers, your taxi driver, someone who does fishing for a hobby and now is potentially not going to fish because of the new fishing policy on seabass for example.”

While property entrepreneur Richard Tice may be an unfamiliar name, Banks has certainly raised some eyebrows in his year on the political scene.

In October last year, he handed £1million to Ukip – up from the original amount of £100,000 after William Hague claimed he had never heard of the former Tory donor and multi-millionaire businessman.

“I’m hoping that Mr Hague will now know who I am,” Banks remarked as he announced the donation.

Nigel Farage and Arron Banks last year

Since May’s General Election, Banks has turned his attention away from Ukip to the European Union Referendum.

Initially launched as Know.EU, the group rebranded after the Electoral Commission changed the referendum question to a remain or leave choice.

Despite his focus on Leave.eu, Banks has still managed to find time to cause some controversy.

At Ukip’s conference in October, he described the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, as “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in.”

He is also not afraid to take the fight on to social media, attacking “posh Tory boys who know nothing” and Carswell for supporting the other Out campaign Vote Leave (or as Banks calls them “the ultimate cosy club at 52 tufton street”).

Despite those comments, he has written to Vote Leave asking for the two groups to merge in order to present a unified front ahead of the referendum.

Just one will be chosen as the official Leave campaign group by the Electoral Commission - a decision that brings with it a higher profile and access to more cash.

However, the letter calling for a merger did not go down well with Vote Leave, with an insider questioning the motives of Banks.

Relations between the two groups are still icy, and as the Huffington Post UK revealed yesterday, a senior ground campaign chief who quit Vote Leave spoke to Banks’ group about defecting.

Bilney insists even if Leave.eu does not get the official designation, "we carry on, we don’t change our objective, that doesn’t change whatsoever."

Bilney has known Banks for eight years, and the two set up an insurance business together three years ago.

She believes Banks is learning how to conduct himself in politics, and said: “Arron did make some comments on Twitter, but he learnt from that and he actually came of Twitter because he realised that what he was saying was going to be spun.

“Arron was very new to politics and if we go back 12 weeks, and obviously he had donated to Ukip, but he wasn’t part of that political circle so he publicly came off Twitter - although he has come back into it again, I noticed he started tweeting again.

“Arron has been quite controlled through this process, he wasn’t advocating the stunt that happened a couple of weeks ago [when Vote Leave campaigners crashed David Cameron’s CBI speech].

“He’s saying ‘Let’s just all work together’ and he has put together the letter in a genuine attempt to try and put the two groups together, and we’ll genuinely wait and see to see what response we get.”

“But what if the condition of the group’s merging is a diminished role for Banks and Farage?” I ask.

Bilney replies: “We’ll just have to see how talks progress. We would say Nigel’s not involved with our campaign. There will obviously be rules of engagement, I guess, that will be created if the two groups manage to come to a position where they do merge. Roles will have to be decided. Responsibilities will have to be decided. Key players will have to be decided.”

One of those key roles will be who would represent the Leave campaign in any televised debates ahead of the referendum.

“Richard and Arron have done great jobs so far so I would suggest them,” says Bilney.

Ahead of Farage?

“Well Farage is a supporter of our campaign group but to date he has not spoken on our behalf, at all. And we’ve always been quite wary about bringing him on board fully because he would have a narrower appeal. Ukip have a following of four million, but we want to look beyond that and we want to keep across a far-reaching appeal.

“Do you think he’s a Marmite character?” I ask.

“I think you’re going to be in one of two camps with him,” Bilney replies.

“Which camp are you in?”

“I think he’s a nice person. I’ve met him, he was at the conference last week, I’ve met him on a couple of other occasions.

“He’s a good speaker so I’ve been watching him just for my own experience and to build up my own knowledge I’ve watched how he presents himself and he’s really great. I have been watching other politicians as well.”

Bilney may be used to managing businesses, but managing the egos of a publicity-hungry politicians will be her biggest job to date.

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