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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Has Arlene Foster saved power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?

After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.

A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.

Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.

Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.

Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.

She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.

The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.

Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.

Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control. His demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.

As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult.  I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.