Sleaze scandal strips Dame Shirley Porter of her title

Despite owing Westminster council £37m over the 'homes for votes' scandal, the former Tory grande dame is still living the good life
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The Independent Online

Shirley Porter, the central figure in the "homes for votes" corruption scandal, is to be stripped of the title of Dame, awarded 12 years ago for "services to local government". It is an unprecedented move for such a senior local politician.

Lady Porter (she has the title by virtue of her marriage to Sir Leslie Porter), heiress to the Tesco fortune, was appointed a Dame of the British Empire by John Major, after she had delivered a spectacular victory for the Tories in the 1990 elections in Westminster, where she was council leader.

That victory, achieved at the height of the poll tax riots, later developed into the biggest local government corruption scandal of the decade, when a district auditor accused Lady Porter and others of using council funds to rig the vote. For several years, they had been systematically moving council tenants out of marginal wards to replace them with owner-occupiers, who were assumed to be more likely to vote Tory.

Mavis McDonald, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, has been told by John Prescott to prepare a submission which will open the way to removing her title of Dame.

Nick Raynsford, the minister for local government, dropped a heavy hint of what was in store for Lady Porter when he said: "Given the fact that she was convicted of scandalous behaviour and corrupt practices, it might appear curious for her still to hold a damehood for her services to local government."

The move is a reminder of the sleaze allegations that enmeshed the dying Conservative administration. Despite the succession of court findings against her, Lady Porter has never been condemned by any Tory leader.

It is not difficult to track Shirley Porter down. She may be unwilling to set foot in Britain, but she is so far from being hounded in Israel, where she now lives, that her number is in the telephone book and directory inquiries will happily give you her address in Herzliya Pituach.

Herzliya Pituach is the favourite retreat of Israel's rich, a few miles up the coast from the bustle of Tel Aviv. A soporific place, with its neat lanes of villas, it is more like some exclusive Hollywood neighbourhood than the Middle East. Apartments here sell for millions. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came crashing up against Herzliya once, in a suicide bombing. But generally the place feels a long way from the tensions that beset the region.

The Independent on Sunday telephoned Dame Shirley in Herzliya Pituach. A woman answered. "Can I speak to Dame Shirley?" "Yes of course. I'll just get her. Who's calling?" "The Independent on Sunday."

"I'm sorry. I'll take a message." Click brrrr.

A short walk down the street from their freestanding apartment block are the immaculate green asphalt tennis courts of the Arcadia Hotel, where Dame Shirley likes to get a game in. Beyond that, her husband Sir Leslie's yacht is one of those bobbing in the Herzliya marina, a forest of masts, where Israel's well-heeled sit sweating at the expensive cafés.

Dame Shirley is not trying to hide here. On the contrary, she and Sir Leslie have been dispensing their largesse to several charitable causes. He is the Chancellor of Tel Aviv University. There's the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, the Shirley and Leslie Porter School of Cultural Studies, the Cohen-Porter Family Swimming Pool and the Porter Senior Citizen Centre in Jaffa, down the coast.

But the British authorities are not exactly hounding her. She was entertained to dinner at the British Embassy in November last year. Dame Shirley has said she did not come to Israel to escape the British authorities but because she wanted to live near her daughter Linda, who already lived in Israel, after her grandson, Daniel, was killed in a car crash in 1993.

But if she is easy to find, her fortune is not. The source of the Porters' wealth is clear. Her father, Sir John Cohen, founded Tesco, which he named after his wife, Tessa Cohen. Her husband took over as chairman of Tesco. He was knighted 20 years ago, so Shirley Porter will still be able to call herself a Lady even if she is no longer a Dame.

Even her son, John Porter, is a multimillionaire in his own right, as a former chairman of Redbus International, which was once seen as the biggest success story from the internet boom.

Yet Westminster council, which is owed £37m by Lady Porter, has so far managed to seize about £7,000-worth of her belongings, including a portrait and a gold-plated lavatory seat. Last year she caused amazement by declaring that her assets were worth only £300,000 - about one-thousandth of what she was thought to be actually worth.

That claim has now been blown apart after her son was one of the instigators of a boardroom coup that ousted the founder of Redbus International, Cliff Stanford. Stanford fought a ferocious battle to have himself reinstated and the entire board, headed by Mr Porter, sacked.

Private detectives snooping around Mr Porter appear to have come upon e-mails from his mother implying that she was bankrolling him with huge sums of money. The e-mails suggested that her fortune was concealed in offshore investments in Guernsey and the British Virgin Islands, and in Swiss bank accounts.

The e-mail that perhaps revealed most about Lady Porter was one about a surprise party for her son. She told him: "You appeared to be totally surprised unless, of course, you've inherited my genes and know how to lie?"

Yet with access to the vast wealth generated by the Tesco empire, it seems incredible that Lady Porter could not lay hands on enough to make an out-of-court settlement with Westminster council. Instead, her refusal to admit there was any wrongdoing has seemingly condemned her to self-imposed exile for the rest of her life.

Honours removed

The traitor, Anthony Blunt

The Surveyor of the Queen's pictures and former MI5 agent was stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after being exposed as a Soviet spy of 40 years standing.

The fraudster, Jack Lyons

Stripped of his knighthood after being convicted in 1990 of conspiracy, theft and false accounting for his part in the Guinness shares fraud scandal.

The lying minister 1, John Profumo

The Secretary of State for War in Macmillan's Tory government lost his status as a Privy Councillor for lying to Parliament over his affair with Christine Keeler in 1963.

The lying minister 2, Jonathan Aitken

The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury was jailed for lying under oath in the High Court over a stay at the Paris Ritz. He 'resigned' from the Privy Council when his libel action failed.

The tax avoider, Lester Piggott

Sentenced to three years in prison in 1987 for a £2.8 million tax fraud, the legendary jockey served 366 days and was stripped of his OBE by the Queen in June 1988.