THE IoS PROFILE: Shirley Porter; Rich, Fashy and Corrupt with It. She's Nothing like a Dame ; the Lady Owes Pounds 27m for Her Part in Britain's Most Notorious Vote- Rigging Scandal. with a Pounds 70m Personal Fortune, She Can Afford to Pay It. but You've Got to Catch Her First
Sean O'Grady, The Independent (London, England)
British public life produces relatively few political exiles. Victims certainly, such as Peter Mandelson or Michael Portillo; and villains, too, like Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer; but no one who has been forced to leave the country because of their record in government. And local government at that.
But Dame Shirley Porter, former leader of Westminster council, looks like becoming our first politician to move abroad permanently in the wake of her misdemeanours. For last week's unanimous ruling by the House of Lords marks the end of Dame Shirley's battle to clear her name over her authority's notorious homes- for-votes policy in the 1980s.
It is worth recalling just what this entailed. Her "homes for votes" strategy was simple: a four-year plan to ensure the 1990 local elections were won by the Conservatives. Council homes in eight key marginal wards would be put up for sale, under the "right to buy" policy, thus attracting more voters inclined to vote Conservative; the poor and the homeless (more likely to vote Labour) would be placed in "appropriate wards". In practice this meant decanting some of them into two tower blocks contaminated with asbestos. The BBC's Panorama programme investigated the scandal in 1989 and this was followed up by a damning report by the district auditor and a decade of legal battles.
Now Dame Shirley must also hand over pounds 27m as a surcharge - effectively a fine - for her part in the affair. Remarkably, she could afford to pay a debt of that magnitude, and still have some change, thanks to her personal fortune, estimated at pounds 70m. But she won't be parting with her cash any time soon because she and her funds have taken up residence in Haifa, Israel.
What she has lost, however, is any remaining shred of credibility. The language used by the Law Lords sees to that. Her policies represented "a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power" and "wilful misconduct". She and other Tory councillors were guilty of "disgraceful gerrymandering". Worst was the condemnation of her and her former deputy, David Weeks, as corrupt. In the words of Lord Scott: "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. Gerrymandering, the manipulation of constituency boundaries for party political advantage, is a clear form of political corruption."
It is a bleak denouement for the "iron lady of the town halls", a Thatcherite star when she took over Westminster in 1983, who pioneered the privatisation of local services and set a poll tax of pounds 36. Until the homes-for-votes scandal broke, her most notorious act was to sell off Westminster's public cemeteries for 15p to a Panamanian-registered company. They were later sold for pounds 1.2m. It was the sort of audacious move that enraged the left and pleased her mentor Margaret Thatcher in equal measure. Indeed Dame Shirley had a good deal in common with Mrs Thatcher. They were about the same age, they both enjoyed a scrap and both were grocers' daughters. Dame Shirley's father, Sir Jack Cohen, was the more successful, having built up the Tesco empire, while Alderman Roberts never progressed beyond his corner shop and sub post office in Grantham, but they both inherited a good deal of drive and homespun philosophy from their fathers.
Shirley was born in Clapton, east London, Cohen's youngest daughter. Legend has it that Jack started out selling matzos from a barrow. By the 1930s he had three or four shops, having co-operated with a merchant called TE Stockwell whose loose teas he packeted. …