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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?

The Cabinet, yesterday.
The Cabinet, yesterday.

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.