The Westminster Scandal: Single-minded approach to London: The Leader

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'HER ONLY insecurity is an inner doubt as to whether she is doing the right thing - although she seems pretty sure that she is.' This is what Sir Leslie Porter said about his wife, Dame Shirley, almost five years ago when she and her Tory colleagues were allegedly rigging the voting profiles of key marginal wards.

The quote, uttered to the London Evening Standard in 1989, was meant to be complimentary; the only doubts that she had revolved around being right, doing better, giving greater value for money, all Tory maxims at a time when local government was being assailed by free-market dogma. With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems rather unfortunate.

At the time, Dame Shirley, 63, was the thrusting leader of Westminster City Council, the woman who ran her local authority the way her late father, Sir Jack Cohen, ran Tesco, the business he built from humble beginnings as a barrow boy.

She set up 'one-stop' offices where ratepayers (often referred to as customers) could have all their problems dealt with; she successfully sued the Labour-controlled Greater London Council for political corruption; she waged war on litter and introduced the country's first 'pooper-scoopers'.

In the process, she became Britain's best-known local politician - comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, that other grocer's daughter, were irresistible - and Westminster became the Conservatives' flagship council, at one point setting a poll tax rate of pounds 36.

But there was a downside. Dame Shirley was lambasted after selling three cemeteries to a Panamanian speculator for 15p. The cemeteries were bought back at a loss to the ratepayer of pounds 4.25m. There were allegations of a pounds 100,000 slush fund being set up to help the Tories win the local election in 1990. And there was the unsavoury suggestion that Westminster council should find houses outside the borough for its homeless.

Dame Shirley entered politics in 1974. She is described as being startlingly astute and single-minded. Her grasp of Westminster council business, before her resignation in 1991, was total, to the extent that she 'interfered' in all aspects of its administration. Officers and councillors united in describing her as bossy, dogmatic and unforgiving.

Admirers say she is nothing if not resilient, a characteristic she puts down to her Jewish upbringing and the tough example set by her father. She has already engaged the services of Anthony Scrivener QC, a former chairman of the Bar Council, to fight the allegations. If she fails, a surcharge would barely knock a hole in her personal fortune.

Whatever happens, she is unlikely to be remembered as she would like to be. Once, when asked how that would be, she replied: 'As having cleaned up London.'

Comments