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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage