Biography of Shirley Porter lays bare her abuse of power

A damning first biography of Dame Shirley Porter, detailing the former Westminster Council leader's misconduct and "audacious lies", will be launched tonight by Granta Books.

Nothing Like A Dame, the unauthorised account of arguably the greatest political corruption scandal in recent British history, was written by the BBC journalist Andrew Hosken. His report in June 2003 led to the discovery of her hidden wealth and the council recovering a fraction of the £48.7m she owed taxpayers.

It details how Porter socially cleansed Westminster to fix the borough's electoral map and it contains fresh information on investigators' pursuit of her finances. The book provides new ammunition for objectors who question why Westminster Council settled so cheaply with her, accepting just £12.3m. The deal is being investigated by the district auditor.

Paul Dimoldenberg, a Labour councillor during Porter's reign, and now at Westminster, said Hosken's book proved the council had "no stomach" for collecting the debt. "The chief executive, Peter Rogers, and the current leader, Sir Simon Milton, a close political associate of Porter, saw it as an historical distraction reminding people of the Porter era. The council knew she was worth more and they settled too cheaply." The authority denies the claim.

Hosken reveals that Westminster Council was considering winding up the search for Porter's wealth. A month before Hosken's report on the Radio 4 Today programme, the council's city solicitor, Colin Wilson wrote to the chief executive, Peter Rogers: "Bearing in mind the considerable expenditure to date, and the lack of substantial recovery, one option clearly would be to conclude that no further action should be taken."

The council also declined to accept information from Cliff Stanford, the businessman who supplied Hosken with illegally obtained e-mails belonging to Porter's son John showing that Dame Shirley had control of millions. Mr Stanford said he offered the e-mails to council investigators in January 2003 but they "were not interested".

Porter's fall from grace was an unexpected epitaph to a high-profile career in local politics . At one stage in the 1980s she was considered the Margaret Thatcher of local politics, the effortlessly terrifying woman who sold three cemeteries for 15 pence and who led a camel across Westminster Bridge in protest at the Greater London Council's high rates - the straw that broke the camel's back.

As leader of Westminster, she was feted as the leading light at one of Mrs Thatcher's flagship councils.But all her achievements were overshadowed by the hysterical events she instigated after Labour's near-victory in the 1986 council elections. In an attempt to "save her empire" , she embarked on a campaign to drive the homeless (perceived as Labour supporters) out of eight key marginal wards to make way for probable Tory voters. Her "Homes For Votes" policies saw the sale of social housing to middle class yuppies, and the housing of 122 homeless families in two tower blocks the council knew to be riddled with asbestos.

Combined with one of the lowest poll taxes in the country, the electorate rigging meant the Tories annihilated Labour at the 1990 election, winning a 36-seat majority. Porter resigned soon after, and was made a dame in 1991 by John Major. But the district auditor, John Magill, was on her case, battling council officials who were shredding documents detailing the corruption.

In January 1994 he found Porter guilty of wilful misconduct and gerrymandering. She and her deputy David Weeks were ordered to pay back the cost of their corruption to the council. By March 1994 she and husband Sir Leslie, a former Tesco chairman, fled to Israel. She claimed to own assets worth just £300,000 - among them a gold-plated lavatory seat and £67.25 in a Coutts Bank account.

In reality she had already started hiding her money in a web of offshore accounts and companies. Investigators' lucky break came in 2003 when Hosken was given the illegally obtained e-mails by Stanford, who had fallen out with Porter's son, John. They included the bank sort codes and numbers of secret accounts in Switzerland and Guernsey.

Hosken ran the story exposing the whereabouts of the missing millions and investigators froze £34m of Porter funds. They struck a deal with her in April 2004, which saw her repay £12.3m.

Kit Malthouse, the Tory councillor who led the negotiations with Porter, said critics of the deal were acting with opportunistic hindsight. "They would say that wouldn't they?" he said. "The politically safe thing would have been to keep on spending money instead of striking a deal. Simon [Milton] specifically stood back and said he didn't want anything to do with it."

Investigations continue.

Trail of scandal

* 1930: Born in Clapton, east London, to Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco

* 1974: Elected Conservative councillor for Hyde Park. Ran campaigns for cleaner streets and parks, and attacked the Soho sex industry

* 1983: Leader of Westminster Council

* 1986: Labour comes within 100 votes of winning control, prompting Porter to begin gerrymandering

* 1989: Moves 122 homeless families into two asbestos-riddled tower blocks

* 1990: Westminster Tories annihilate Labour in council election

* 1991: Porter resigns and is made a dame by John Major

* 1994: Found guilty and ordered to repay £21.25m. Flees to Israel

* 1999: Cleared at the Court of Appeal

* 2001: Ordered to repay £43.3m. Porter's worth estimated at £19.5m

* 2002: Porter lies on oath, claiming she is worth just £300,000

* 2003: Westminster Council considers winding up case. Hosken's report exposes the whereabouts of her millions

* 2004: Porter strikes a deal with the council in secret talks, agreeing to repay £12.3m

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