ONE OF Britain's worst political corruption scandals reached its conclusion yesterday when Dame Shirley Porter was ordered to repay pounds 26.5m wasted on Westminster council's "homes for votes" affair.
In a damning judgment, the House of Lords found the former leader of the flagship Tory borough guilty of attempting to "gerrymander" local elections more than 15 years ago. The law lords reimposed the surcharge made by a district auditor against Dame Shirley and her deputy, David Weeks, for selling council homes to potential Tory voters to try to boost the party's chances at the polls.
The pair had acted unlawfully by concentrating on marginal wards for a programme of selling flats and houses that had been specifically earmarked for the homeless, the Lords ruled.
The millionaire Tesco heiress, who now lives in Israel, immediately vowed to fight on by taking the Government to the European Court of Human Rights. Legal experts pointed out that the court process had in effect been exhausted. Westminster City Council an-nounced it would immediately seek the money owed.
The council's head of legal services gave Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks 14 days in which to pay the surcharge and warned that it would take action to recover the cash if the deadline was not met.
Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks had been cleared of the charges by the Court of Appeal in May 1999, which held that politicians, national or local, could pursue policies and make "voter-pleasing decisions" that were to their party's advantage.
But in their 78-page judgment, the five law lords unanimously quashed that decision in emphatic fashion, upholding the findings of district auditor John Magill and the High Court. Lord Scott of Foscote ruled that both Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks were guilty of "political corruption".
"The corruption was not money corruption. No one took a bribe. No one sought or received money for political favours. But there are other forms of corruption, often less easily detectable and therefore more insidious," he said.
"Gerrymandering - the manipulation of constituency boundaries for party political advantage - is a clear form of political corruption".
He said that, if unchecked, "it engenders cynicism about elections, about politicians and their motives, and damages the reputation of democratic government".
The damning judgment leaves the reputation of Dame Shirley, one of the Tories' most flamboyant figures of the 1980s, in tatters. The daughter of Jack Cohen, a former East End barrow boy who founded Tesco with the motto "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap", she put the London borough on the map with her right-wing populist policies. She may have seemed divisive, pushy and egotistical, but she was praised repeatedly by that other famous grocer's daughter, Margaret Thatcher.
Dame Shirley's fear of losing Westminster to the Labour Party, a fear that prompted her to draw up the gerrymandering scheme, led ultimately to her downfall. In the May local elections in 1986, Labour had come within four seats of taking control of the flagship council. Five weeks later, Dame Shirley called senior colleagues to a lunch at her cottage …