‘She can’t stand that woman,’ an aide of Mrs Thatcher once said of Dame Shirley Porter, the notorious, scandal-prone leader of Westminster City Council during the 1980s. Such contempt was perhaps surprising, for Lady Porter was seen by many as the mirror image of Mrs Thatcher both in her outspoken character and in the aggressive way she ran her municipal fiefdom. Domineering, energetic and impatient, she liked to pose as the champion of business and the ratepayer against sclerotic civic bureaucracy. Like Mrs Thatcher, she was ferociously partisan, relishing battles with her opponents, while she could also be brutally intimidating to her own senior officials.
Yet, as the BBC journalist Andrew Hosken shows in this superb biography, Lady Porter had nothing like Mrs Thatcher’s political talent or genuine gifts of leadership. A noisy self-publicist, she allowed toughness to descend into bullying, radicalism into overt corruption. Lacking any real political principle, she became obsessed with clinging onto office at any price, eventually presiding over probably the most fraudulent local authority regime in British history, even outdoing the Labour empire of T. Dan Smith in Newcastle in the 1970s. Lady Porter was the high priestess of Tory sleaze, her actions helping to undermine the reputation of the Conservative party in the 1990s and pave the way for the arrival of Tony Blair.
For all its perceived mundanity, local government has often been the subject of fierce controversy, reflected in the current rows over council tax levels or in the bitter disputes about the role of local education authorities at the beginning of the last century. But no era has seen more explosive municipal politics than the 1980s. In London, Ken Livingstone turned the GLC into a cesspit of puerile extremism, trumpeting his support for violent Irish republicanism or doling out grants to a bewildering array of fringe groups. Further north, Derek Hatton made Liverpool City Council a stronghold of the ultra-left Militant Tendency.
It was in this climate of strife that Lady Porter flourished. The smoke of battle was in her nostrils. She had nothing but contempt for the slow-moving, gentlemanly customs of traditional local government and meandering discussions in wood-panelled committee rooms. Her belief was that municipal socialism had to be challenged directly and forcefully, in the same way that her heroine Mrs Thatcher had taken on the trade unions at a national level. Privatisation, property sales and propaganda were to be her weapons in this confrontation. But though her methods appeared to succeed in the short term, they were disastrous — for herself and the Tories — in the long-run.
At her peak, Lady Porter was the second most famous female politician in Britain after the Prime Minister. But, as Hosken demonstrates, her rise to national prominence could not have been predicted in her early years. Like Mrs Thatcher, she was the daughter of a grocer, though her father, Jack Cohen, was somewhat more successful than Alderman Roberts. Cohen, born into a poor Jewish immigrant family, founded the Tesco supermarket chain, now Britain’s biggest retailer, and Shirley Porter inherited some of the innate bullishness and restlessness of her father, one of whose favourite mottos was YCDBSOYA: ‘You can’t do business sitting on your arse.’ But she showed little promise at school, leaving with an undistinguished academic record, and until her late middle age was content to be a golf-playing housewife and mother, married to the businessman Leslie Porter, who eventually succeeded Cohen in charge of Tesco.
It was not until her children had grown up that Shirley Porter became involved in Tory local politics in London. Again, in her first years on the Council, she was unimpressive, displaying neither intellectual talent nor oratorical skill in the council chamber. But her mediocre reputation was transformed at the end of the Seventies when, as a committee chairman, she successfully cracked down on the vice trade in Soho, something no previous Westminster Council had been able to do, and took a robust line against striking binmen in the Winter of Discontent.
In 1983, she was elected Tory leader of the Council at the head of a group of radical Thatcherites who wanted to sweep away the cobwebs from City Hall. But Porter, for all her flair, proved curiously insecure in the top job, partly, Hosken argues, because of her lack of intellectual weight, which left her forgetful, poor at detail and suspicious of officers. Her paranoia was given full rein after the London elections of 1986, when the Tories came within a whisker of losing the council to Labour. Porter was aghast at the idea of the centre of the capital falling into socialist hands, and in her quest to keep Westminster Conservative she lost all grip on propriety. Public money was used for party ends; neutral officers were transformed into political agents; housing allocations were decided on a partisan basis.
By accumulating testimony from many of the key players of the time, Hosken does a brilliant job in describing the municipal madhouse that Porter erected in Westminster City Hall. To the outrage of local residents, she sold off the Council’s cemeteries for just 15p to a group of shadow developers who had no interest in the upkeep of the graves. In Hosken’s memorable phrase, ‘the ownership of the cemeteries passed like a greasy rugby ball down the line of offshore companies’. In an even more disgraceful move, she shoved large numbers of homeless families into a set of tower blocks which were riddled with asbestos, purely for the political goal of keeping these likely Labour voters out of marginal wards.
The irony was that Porter, for all her Thatcherite rhetoric, was implementing policies that were the opposite of true conservatism. Her rule was utterly dysfunctional. She created a vast, expensive bureaucracy to preside over her corrupt regime. Like Nixon at the height of Watergate, she tried to sack anyone who disagreed with her ideology. On one bizarre occasion, the riot police were even summoned into the City Hall to arrest Labour councillors. And she wasted a fortune in public money by keeping properties empty and boarded up while the homeless were pushed out to bed and breakfast accommodation in other boroughs. In one characteristically lunatic scheme, she tried to get a huge prefabricated shelter built in Dagenham to house some of Westminster’s homeless.
A few brave Tories, like party agent Donald Stewart, regarded her leadership as ‘bordering on the criminal’ and heroically worked to bring her down, though, as Hosken points out, it was a disgrace that so many city directors colluded with her for so long. In fact, it was only after she had voluntarily left office that proceedings for corruption started against her. Again, Hosken is excellent on untangling the complex web of financial duplicity that she had woven around City Hall. Eventually, in 1996, after elongated legal proceedings, she was ordered to pay a surcharge of an astonishing £43 million. In exile in Israel, she avoided any payment for years by hiding her personal fortune in secret accounts, but it was Hosken’s own dogged research into her wealth that helped to force a settlement out of her.
Parts of the story of her downfall almost read like a thriller, some achievement for a book about a local councillor. The tragedy of Dame Shirley was that she wanted to be a second Margaret Thatcher, but ended as a copy of that epic old fraudster Horatio Bottomley.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 18, 2006