Donation row: the Tories and Lib Dems might not be to blame but they look as shifty as rats

The £520,000 bequeathed by Joan Edwards was intended for "whichever Government is in office", so how did it end up in the coalition parties' coffers?

Among the list of party political donations published by the Electoral Commission yesterday, the most curious were those from "Ms Joan L B Edwards", who was reported as giving £420,576 to the Conservatives and £99,423 to the Lib Dems. Initially thought to be a rare act of pro-coalition generosity, it transpired that the money was left in her will, which, according to party sources, stipulated that it should go "to whoever was the party of government of the day". Since this is a coalition, the money was split between the Tories and the Lib Dems based on the number of MPs they have. 

But today's Daily Mail casts a strikingly different light on the story. The paper reports that the will, written in 2001, in fact stated that the £520,000 should go 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" and made no reference to any political party. Based on that, it is patently clear that she intended the money to be used by the government to fund public services or pay down the national debt, not by political parties to fund spin doctors and poster campaigns. As shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy tweeted last night, "this looks dodgy as hell by Tories&Libs". 

In response, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have both stated that the executors of the will, two solicitors, informed them that they were beneficiaries. A Conservative Party spokesman said: "The solicitors for the deceased, acting as the executors, informed the Conservative Party that it was a beneficiary of the will." A Lib Dem spokesman said: "The Liberal Democrats were notified that the party was a beneficiary of Miss Edwards’s will." In other words, if anyone is to blame for the apparent misappropriation of the money it is the executors, not, as the Mail would have it, "grasping politicians". 

What remains unclear is at what point (if any) the executors were advised that the money should be treated as a party political donation. The Mail was told that the executors "initially contacted the Government’s Treasury Solicitors department to ask where to send the cash, and that both the Treasury Solicitors and the office of Attorney General Dominic Grieve – a Conservative MP – then ruled it was a 'party political donation'" But the Attorney General's Office replied that "The executors of Miss Edwards’s estate contacted the AGO about her bequest but the Attorney provided no advice.

"The Treasury Solicitors replied on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office setting out further steps the executors may wish to take to identify the correct recipient of the bequest. It did not, nor could have, advised to whom the bequest should go."

The BBC's Robin Brant reports that the executors are currently not commenting but "may release a statement this afternoon". Only then, perhaps, will it be clear who was to blame for the misinterpretation of her will. In the meantime, the Tories and Lib Dems are left looking as shifty as rats. With each successive scandal, the case for state funding grows a little stronger. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder