The tale of Joan Edwards's bequest shows the worst sleaze is immoral, not illegal

The 90-year-old's bequest could have helped build a school, or saved 37,000 carers from paying the bedroom tax. Why did the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats try to keep her money for their election campaigns?

Rarely do I wake up feeling grateful to the Daily Mail, but today is one of those days. Their story on Joan Edwards' £520,000 bequest to the government, is a good old-fashioned scoop, based on good old-fashioned journalism. And it has the potential to cause the Coalition more damage than all the rather esoteric, negative economic indicators put together.

By massaging this statistic or that, one can argue what the correct response to a recession should be. One can make a semi-decent argument on whether fracking is a good idea or not. One could even argue that an under-occupancy levy is not a "bedroom tax" or penalty, but the removal of a subsidy. The apparent misappropriation of an old lady's life savings, however, is not something anyone would want to argue is right.

Looking at scandals from the Profumo affair to MPs' expenses, the stories which do real, lasting damage need not be in the sphere of "illegal". Often actions which are universally seen as "immoral" can be much worse. The whiff of sleaze can stick to an administration like gum to a toddler's hair.

Although the parties have now been shamed into handing back the money, the early favourite as a defence was “we did nothing wrong, technically”. This was always a short-sighted move by the Coalition. It fell apart at the most cursory of inspections. Joan Edwards left her life savings to “whichever Government is in office at the date of my death for the Government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit”. To suggest that this “absolute discretion” included the option of the party in government keeping the money for themselves, to fund their next election campaign, rings very hollow. It could not be more clear that the gift was a civic, not a political, one. The fact that the will was drawn in 2001, while a different party was in government, compounds this impression.

What would one think if a bequest, let us say, to “whomever happens to be the head of the RSPCA at the date of my death for them in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit” was used by the current director of the RSPCA to build an indoor swimming pool in his house? Well, this is precisely what happened. One could spend an eternity explaining why that is not wrong, technically. The only result would be to convince how irrefutably wrong it is, actually.

The affair has a secondary effect, as well. It made a concrete, undeniable statement about the government's priorities. This money could pay for 25 nurses desperately needed in the NHS; it could help pay for a new primary school, places in which are predicted to be severely short in 2015; it could provide relief to 37,000 carers who, this month, are forced to pay £14 for having a bedroom judged to be underoccupied. Over all this, the Government is much more interested in itself and its re-election. This money, left to it to use in their absolute discretion, was the perfect litmus test of the respect they have for the position of trust which their office entails.

The second line of defence appears to be “we knew nothing about this”. The claim is that the fault rested squarely with the executors of the will. This is problematic, too. There is not one party in Government – a situation in which, stretching the bounds of the possible, one might believe that half a million ended up in its coffers, unnoticed. There is a Coalition and a way to carve up the money – according to the number of MPs each party has – was worked out. There is no way the parties' legal representatives who thrashed out that deal, did not look at the will's original wording. No. Way.

This is a completely open goal for Ed Miliband. Actually, it is a penalty and the goalkeeper has gone for a cappuccino. If he has any sense, he will not claim ownership of righteous indignation. He will simply keep asking questions: Who agreed how the money was to be shared? When did the leaders become aware of the bequest? Were they consulted about how “they saw fit” to spend the money? What led them to the decision that their parties' own coffers were a fit use of the half million?

He will keep reminding people of this for the next two years. Every question on party funding should be answered with “Joan Edwards”. Every critique of the Government's priorities should have “Joan Edwards” as an addendum. It is the neatest, most direct and understandable reminder of the fact that the Coalition is hopelessly out of touch, ruthlessly self-interested and shamelessly immoral.

It's just a pity the dear soul did not leave Cameron and Clegg her organs. Few would object to a heart and a spine going where they are most desperately needed.

The Cabinet, yesterday.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism