Nothing Like a Dame - The Scandals of Shirley Porter, by Andrew Hosken

Story of the rise and fall of Shirley Porter - the leader of Westminster council in the early '80s. The book gives some background on Porter's upbringing, before concentrating on the period when she gained power at the council, and finishing up with the story of how she was made to pay (some of) what she owed as a result of her gerrymandering.

Porter does come across as a pretty unpleasant character: bossy, not really very bright, and not at all contrite: although she does (in private correspondence) admit she is a liar, and she did concede that she had been guilty of gerrymandering when it came to agreeing on how much of the surcharge she'd pay, you don't get the feeling that she actually believed herself to have been in the wrong. But she also seems a bit pathetic: she tried to get herself on to the board at Tesco, and was refused; tried to get selected as a Tory MP and was rejected, and she appears to have got where she did in the council more by bullying, brazen-ness and bluster than by virtue of any ability to do the job. And in the end, her reputation was ruined.

I think the main thing that came over in the book was how unbelievable it all was. At one point Hosken says of John Magill, the auditor who spent years investigating the corruption, that he was hampered by the fact that he was basically an honest man, and as an honest man he was inclined to suppose that those giving evidence to him were basically honest as well. And I feel a bit the same: it's incredible to think that Porter & co were involved in that much skulduggery and were apparently willing to lie about it without any shame.

Porter does seem to have achieved one thing, namely the introduction of regulation to control the sex shops in Soho. And this is something she is given credit for. But just about every other initiative - many to do with keeping the streets clean - she was involved with was either a flop or a facade to obscure her real purpose: many of the tidying efforts were focused in the "key wards" that she believed were crucial for electoral success.

The book talks about the cemetary fiasco (three cemetaries sold for 5p each, eventually bought back by the council for several million pounds) - I don't think that this was included in the fines against Porter, although I guess it could have been. But most of the detail is around the "homes for votes" campaign, which involved moving homeless people out of the council's wards; boarding up empty homes until they could be redeveloped and sold to private buyers; selling off council homes to likely Tory voters despite the huge council waiting list, and using two asbestos-ridden tower blocks as accommodation after the GLC had been trying to evacuate people from them.

It's all very readable, and Hosken deserves credit for making what must have been a very complicated and difficult-to-research story (Porter's lot did as much as they could to shred documents when the auditors came in) so accessible. The only slight criticism I'd have is that he sometimes describes Porter in a way that casts her in a bad light. E.g. she doesn't "say" something, she "snaps" it. And she might be described as "dictatorial" rather than "decisive". I think these descriptions are probably accurate, but they sometimes come across as a bit un-impartial. Mind you, I think he can be forgiven for this, she probably deserves it.

The book is written by the BBC journalist who was involved in tracking down Porter's money, after she'd been found guilty of gerrymandering and fined 40-odd million pounds. But until the last section, you wouldn't really know that: there's a lot more detail about what she got up to in Westminster than how Hosken's investigation went. In fact I wouldn't have minded more stuff about the investigation: not that what there was was insufficient, but I thought it was interesting enough that more could have been made of it.

Completed : 15-May-2007

[nickoh] [2007 books] [books homepage]