A Dame's Demise: How homes for votes caused downfall of the Iron Lady of local politics

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The Independent Online
The homes for votes scandal has virtually driven Dame Shirley Porter into exile in Israel. A decade ago, says Ian Burrell, she was the publicity-hungry Iron Lady of local government, with a family fortune and friends in high places.

Shirley Porter grew up in the East End but her dad was no ordinary barrow-boy. Sir Jack Cohen was the founder of the Tesco supermarket empire and his daughter completed her education at Swiss finishing school.

Yet her political style owed more to the hard-nosed business style of her father than her classes in Switzerland where she "learned to ski and little else". After becoming leader of Westminster city council in 1983, her domineering approach was rivalled only by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Dame Shirley was known to reduce grown men to tears and dismissed her critics as a "bunch of oddballs and gutter-sniping screwballs". Yesterday in a High Court judgment, Lord Justice Rose said she was "a councillor of high ability, great experience, formidable personality and single-minded determination".

That confidence was founded in part on her great personal wealth. The Tesco millions ensured that she was among the top 20 richest women in Europe with a fortune estimated at between pounds 58m and pounds 70m.

Dame Shirley has said that she only discovered politics when her daughter Linda left home to begin studying at Oxford University, leaving her mother with "empty nest syndrome". She had married her husband Leslie when she was just 18. He was then a car mechanic but went on to become chairman of Tesco.

Dame Shirley tore into her new career with a spirit which was summed up by her motto YCDBSOYA, standing for "You Can't Do Business Sitting On Your Ass".

She made her name by standing for office on a platform of cleaning the rubbish from the streets of London.

Like Lady Thatcher she was also known for preaching the virtues of good house-keeping.

Her true blue policies delighted the prime minister as Westminster competed for the title of Tory flagship local authority and reduced its poll tax to the second lowest in Britain.

Her reputation, she has admitted, was of a "powerful, fearsome creature", though she considers herself a "shy, retiring, lovely person". Over the years she has given millions of pounds to charities.

But the means which she employed to attain her successes were later to backfire.

When in 1987 it was revealed that she had sold three cemeteries for 5p each to a Panamanian company to save on a pounds 400,000 maintenance bill there was widespread outrage. The council later bought the cemeteries back for 15p in a secret deal which cost tax-payers pounds 2m.

But it was the homes for votes affair which she first embarked on after the 1986 local elections that was to really undermine her.

During her High Court appeal against an auditor's decision to make her subject to a pounds 31m surcharge over the policy, she admitted that the way her actions had been criticised had left her deeply depressed.

"I was so upset at the way all the work that we had done had been interpreted that I blotted it out," she said.

During two days of evidence in October she was nothing like her old self, looking unsure and uncomfortable under questioning.

She admitted she was "not known for a great grasp of detail" and claimed "I don't think I was on the bridge at all times".

The affair killed off her hunger for publicity and for the past four years the woman who was once synonymous with Britain's capital has lived in Tel Aviv. She left the council in 1991.

In November 1993 Dame Shirley and her husband flew to Israel, where their daughter Linda had emigrated following the death of her 21-year-old son Daniel in a car crash. The Porters, whose London home had been damaged in a fire shortly before the tragedy, have lived in Israel ever since.

He added that after the election of 1986, Dame Shirley had become "determined that the Conservative Party which she led would at the 1990 elections, have a greater majority than that which they had narrowly achieved".