World / Politics

For Nigel Farage and a Brexit pollster, a world of gamblers and gambling

by Cam Simpson, Kit Chellel and Gavin Finch

Bloomberg

Behind the luxury hotels lining London’s Park Lane, just across from a service entrance, Nigel Farage stood outside a squat office building streaked with soot. Britain’s famous anti-European Union campaigner was flanked by a couple of minor sports celebrities and two young women in matching dresses who held up a blue ribbon. Farage lifted a pair of scissors and paused with a smile, mouth agape, his face frozen for the cameras in a silent chortle.

It was Sept. 29, 2016, three months after the U.K.’s shock vote to exit the EU, and Farage was the guest of honor at the opening of a small bookmaking shop owned by a man who calls himself “the most exclusive private bookmaker in the world.” Ben Keith and his operation, Star Sports, specialize in high-end, high-profile clients. Keith, a diehard Farage supporter, was in the picture too, next to his idol.

Gambling is legal in the U.K., even corporatized, but most politicians aren’t elbowing each other out of the way to help open betting shops. Farage is different. Throughout his professional and political lives, he has surrounded himself with men who make or take wagers, big and small, on everything from dog races to elections. They have played leading roles in promoting or financing Farage’s ascent in the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), the rise of his party to the center of the British political agenda, and his campaign to leave the EU, which has thrown the nation into a political crisis.

At least two advisers who were with Farage on the day of the Brexit vote were betting or trading on the collapse of the British pound — fortuitous positions, given how badly the rest of the world got it wrong. The surprise vote sparked the largest crash of any major currency in modern history. Their positions may have benefited from Farage’s actions, as premature concessions he made before the votes were tallied that night helped drive the pound to its highest mark all year, just hours before it plummeted. The false sentiment made bets against the British currency cheaper and more lucrative.

Private polls

Some hedge funds, which made small fortunes in a matter of hours betting the same way as Farage’s pals, had a good idea the concessions were misleading because they’d hired Britain’s best-known polling firms to provide near hour-by-hour voting data, via secret exit polls, according to a Bloomberg investigation published in June. Farage has said he had access to the results of one such poll that night, run by his party’s polling firm, Survation, which showed Leave had won.

Farage has denied having any personal financial interest in the vote, aside from a £1,000-bet he made at a professional bookmaker for campaign publicity. He also has said he did not intentionally drive the pound up ahead of the crash. Farage, who called Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiated agreement with Brussels “the worst deal in history,” has publicly spoken of late about a possible return to the front-line of British politics. He didn’t respond to detailed requests to comment for this article, though he viewed them and shared some of their contents with associates. In addition to the world of supporters around Farage regularly making or taking big bets, add one more gambler he was in touch with that night: Damian Lyons Lowe, the owner of Survation. He also was a key political operative and adviser to Farage as well as the man who, according to Farage, tipped him about the private hedge fund poll. Lyons Lowe declined to comment for this story, but in an interview with the Financial Times in June, he denied giving Farage specific data from that poll.

Six sources familiar with Lyons Lowe’s betting record say he has a history of gambling on politics — in the very contests in which he’s polling.

The timely betting by Farage’s inner circle around the crucial election raises new questions amid concerns from lawmakers and regulators about whether private polling is undermining the integrity of the country’s markets and its democracy.

Spread betting

Farage discovered the thrill of risking his money as a teenager at Dulwich College, an exclusive private boys school in South London, where he founded an investment society, buying and selling company shares through his father, a stock broker, according to Farage’s 2010 memoir, “Fighting Bull.” After leaving school at 18, he joined a firm on the London Metal Exchange, a centuries-old marketplace for trading commodities and associated derivatives. Farage went on to work for units of Drexel Burnham Lambert and Credit Lyonnais.

As Farage said in an April interview and recounted in “Fighting Bull,” he spent quiet work days in the 1990s at the pub with fellow traders, drinking and “spread betting on just about everything.” Spread betting, also legal in the U.K., is a form of gambling that can mirror trading in financial markets, though the participants have no money at stake on financial instruments themselves. Instead, they simply bet on the prices of those instruments, or even a price “spread,” such as the range a stock price might land in on a given day. Spread betting is treated as gambling in the U.K. and, as such, winnings are not taxed. By contrast, investment earnings are subject to taxation, creating some of the appeal for wagering on markets through spread-betting firms.

Farage was first elected UKIP leader in 2006, and one of his first major donors was Alan Bown, a retired bookmaker from Kent who has given the party nearly £2 million, records show. “He wore houndstooth jackets so often that anybody spotting him from 100 yards would have known he could only have been a bookie,” Farage wrote of Bown in the Telegraph newspaper in 2017.

In 2013, Bown also commissioned surveys for UKIP that were carried out by Lyons Lowe and Survation. Bown attracted controversy in 2014 when leaked emails showed him appealing to UKIP representatives in Brussels to divert EU cash to the party’s coffers.

Stuart Wheeler, a former banker who founded Britain’s largest spread-betting firm, IG Group, also was an early major backer of Farage, having jumped over from the Conservative Party, which kicked him out in 2009 after he donated £100,000 to UKIP. Wheeler made his UKIP contributions, which have totaled almost £1 million to date, because of his anger over the nation’s EU membership.

Wheeler was appointed UKIP treasurer in 2011, and later contributed at least 400,000 pounds to pro-Brexit campaigners. (He also is the uncle of Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, who wasn’t involved in the editing of this story.) Farage quietly kept his own hand in spread betting and markets even after he became an elected member of the European Parliament. In 2003, he set up Farage Ltd. with his brother Andrew, with Nigel using an offshore trust to control his shares. The firm profited by hundreds of thousands of pounds through betting on the price of various metals. It then collapsed into bankruptcy in 2015. (Nigel resigned as a director in 2011.) Records show the firms’ liquidators discovered that there were £124,337 of unlawful dividends, withdrawn by Andrew Farage, who was himself declared bankrupt in May 2016. Andrew Farage disputed the amount, but never provided evidence to the contrary, according to the liquidators.

Nigel Farage also worked in a customer-facing role at London-based ACM Group, a trading platform that specializes in spread betting and currencies, according to regulatory records, which show him in that post until November 2008, two years after he took over as UKIP’s leader. (The firm didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

‘Calm and rational feeling’

After Bloomberg’s investigation was published, Farage denied that he had any personal financial incentive to push the British pound higher through his premature, and ultimately wrong, concessions on the night of the Brexit vote. He said they were motivated by pessimism about the outcome, though he specifically told one interviewer on the night that his concessions were based on “a calm and rational feeling” and were informed by “what I know from some of my friends in the financial markets who have done some big polling.”

In his interview with Bloomberg, Farage relished his role in driving the pound higher ahead of its record collapse, and in June a photograph surfaced, apparently posted on Facebook, showing him grinning and pointing to a television screen bearing a chart with the collapsing pound. It was dated June 24, 2016, and showed the time as 3.35 a.m., when markets were in a steep decline because of the voting results. “I was laughing that all the experts had got it wrong,” Farage explained to the BBC in July.

A different photo from the night of the referendum shows Farage side-by-side at a small private party with Hermann Kelly, one of his closest political aides. They’re posing in a selfie posted on Twitter at 10:06 p.m. — hours before the results came in. It’s around the time Farage knew about Survation’s hedge fund poll, he told Bloomberg in April. “We have all changed the directn [sic] of Europe. We shook up the world! So proud to have done my part with @Nigel_Farage,” said the tweet from Kelly, director of communications for an umbrella group of far-right European political parties that was controlled by Farage and UKIP.

What Kelly didn’t tell the world that night via social media was that he was betting on foreign exchange markets, according to one person present, and an account Kelly later gave the author and British political journalist Tim Shipman, who said Kelly earned £9,500 off his Brexit trading when so many market professionals around the world got it wrong. In addition, a document seen by Bloomberg shows Kelly had opened an account for his trading across the Atlantic—in Chicago—at R.J. O’Brien & Associates, which billed itself as one of the world’s largest derivatives and foreign-exchange brokers. He wired $81,000 to the account from his bank in Brussels on Aug. 14, 2015—the same time panic-stricken Leave campaigners believed, incorrectly, that the U.K. government was about to call the referendum.

Kelly declined to comment for this article.

‘Special bets’

Another close Farage associate, who also was with him on the night of the referendum, was watching how financial and betting markets were responding to the day’s events. George Cottrell was a young UKIP activist who ran Farage’s private office. In a July 2017 interview with the Daily Telegraph he boasted that he’d made a “six-figure sum” during the evening of June 23 and early hours of June 24. “At 10pm, I couldn’t believe I was still getting 9/1 [odds for a majority leave vote],” he told the newspaper.

“We were in our campaign office and I was tracking all the major stock indices, the dollar and pound currency markets,” Cottrell said, according to the Telegraph. “When it got to 3 a.m., I was getting my managers out of bed to get me another 50 grand on here, another 50 grand there, to short sterling.” Cottrell, the son of a British aristocrat, said he lost most of his winnings betting on a horse the next day.

Cottrell happened to be with Farage in Chicago in August 2016, during a visit to the U.S. for the Republican Convention, when Cottrell was arrested and charged with money-laundering offenses. Federal prosecutors said Cottrell had offered, via the dark web, to launder money for undercover agents posing as drug traffickers. He pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud and served eight months. Cottrell didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Farage, who also appeared in advertisements for the Paddy Power bookmaking group, attended some Star Sports corporate events and was friends with its owner, Keith, according to a former employee. Keith was one of the bookmakers offering odds on Britain voting to leave the EU in June 2016. On June 8, the bookmaker posted on Twitter that it had taken individual bets of up to 4,000 pounds on Leave at odds of 11/4. Later the same day, responding to a comment on the social media site, the account posted: “No one wants #Brexit more than Ben Keith!”

In internal Star Sports emails seen by Bloomberg, Farage was described as one of Keith’s “chosen few” advisers for events the firm was taking bets on. Keith has been praising Farage and attacking the EU on the Star Sports website since 2013, when he called on the U.K. to stop “pissing away billions into the bottomless-drain, which is the EU.” After the election, Keith drew a comparison between Farage and Mahatma Gandhi, and later called for Farage to become the U.K.’s prime minister.

Keith told Bloomberg he’s friends with Farage, but that the politician had no formal role at Star Sports and did not give him bookmaking advice. Farage attended events, including Keith’s birthday party, in a personal capacity, Keith said, adding that they didn’t know each other until after the 2016 referendum.

Lyons Lowe, the pollster for Farage’s UKIP and his pro-Brexit group, began conducting polls as a sideline during the late 2000s—while he was still doing different work for banks in the City of London. Gambling was at the heart of his new hobby. Lyons Lowe conducted online surveys and also ran a website with others called “Special Bets.” That’s the name bookmakers give to unconventional wagers — basically, all wagering other than sports.

He started Survation in 2010. The firm’s profile grew as it began publishing polls in British media outlets showing increasing support for Farage’s UKIP, which then hired Survation to carry out research, becoming a top client. Lyons Lowe continued to gamble as Survation’s prominence rose in politics, wagering tens of thousands of dollars on elections in which he was conducting public surveys, according to six different sources with knowledge of his wagers. He bet on special elections to fill vacant parliamentary seats, which are called by-elections in the U.K., on at least one market-moving referendum, and on general elections, those individuals said. Most notably, he wagered thousands of pounds on the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the 2015 U.K. general election.

In what would become a trial run of sorts for Brexit, Survation secretly carried out private polling around the Scottish independence vote for top money managers, including Nomura Securities and Brevan Howard, Bloomberg has reported. Lyons Lowe placed at least five separate wagers around the 2015 general election over eight days totaling almost £20,000 with Betfair and IG Group, according to two sources with detailed information about these bets. Betfair is a betting exchange that offers odds on political events.

Concerns

The U.K. has no laws preventing anyone from gambling on political contests, even if they’re participating in them. But some polling firms, including others involved in hedge-fund polls for Brexit, bar staff from wagering on political events in which they’re conducting polls that are released to the general public.

In a statement emailed to Bloomberg, Survation said it was proud of its record: “The provision of accurate insight and prediction services is the primary business activity of Survation and the company will continue to abide by all rules and regulations that relate to our activities.” The Market Research Society maintains a code of conduct that says pollsters should always “protect the reputation and integrity of the profession.” Jane Frost, CEO of the group, said in an emailed statement that it was the business of each firm to manage its own policy on gambling.

Based on Bloomberg’s investigation of Brexit polling, the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority said in October that it is examining the secret relationships between pollsters and hedge funds. The FCA, which is the U.K.’s financial prosecutor and regulator, is specifically looking at whether such arrangements could violate laws or regulations against market abuse and insider dealing, or whether loopholes need to be closed, officials have said. Financial firms from Europe, the U.S. and Asia were all involved.

According to current and former officials familiar with the FCA’s inquiry, the main concerns are likely to center on two types of market-moving, nonpublic information that pollsters sold to hedge funds—data that revealed the contents of market-moving polls before they were made public, and exit-polling data that it would have been illegal for pollsters to share with the public.

Those concerns remain as the country faces the prospect of another Brexit-driven vote, be it a general election or a second referendum.