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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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