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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 13:27 GMT

Special Report

'Can do, will do' leader who idolised Thatcher
image: [ Dame Shirley told court she blotted out
Dame Shirley told court she blotted out "homes-for-votes" scandal from her memory to survive

Dame Shirley Porter, the former Westminster Council leader at the centre of the "homes for votes scandal," won an awesome reputation for her toughness, but was also regarded as the ultimate performer in local politics.

Until the public humiliation of the affair, Dame Shirley - a workaholic who idolised former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - courted publicity as Westminster City Council's dynamic "can do, will do" leader.

Many regarded her as having the image of a New York or Chicago-style mayor, as opposed to that of the traditionally more modest and sedate English civic leader.

Once she dressed in full Red Indian costume, complete with head-dress, to campaign against litter in the city streets.

Her high-profile life was made even more colourful by a political war of attrition with the then leader of the Greater London Council, Labour's Ken Livingstone.

Leader waged war on dog mess

On one occasion Dame Shirley - out to illustrate "the straw that broke the camel's back" - led a camel over Westminster Bridge to County Hall in a protest at escalating GLC rates.

Another target for the heiress of Sir Jack Cohen, the founder of the Tesco supermarket empire - described by Dame Shirley's QC Anthony Scrivener as "the most successful barrow boy of all time" - was dog mess in the streets.

She was delighted to be snapped during one "photo opportunity" driving the latest poop scoop machine.

But behind the razzle-dazzle was the gruelling daily work routine of a wealthy, iron-willed woman, well known for her mood swings and sudden changes of plan, who ruled over some of the richest parts of London - and some of the poorest.

City Hall employees were left wondering what the next day, or even the next hour, would bring.

Cemeteries sold for 5p

She ensured that Westminster received numerous grants while bureaucracy was cut, and the council tax was set at among the lowest in Britain.

Dame Shirley, 66, was celebrated for working breakfasts at her penthouse flat on the edge of Hyde Park, and for expecting her staff to jump whenever she called, no matter what the time of day.

Controversy was never far away, and there was an outcry after Westminster sold three cemeteries for a nominal five pence each in 1987. Five years later the council bought them back for £4.2m.

But it was the accusations of political and social engineering in the homes-for-votes affair which led the former magistrate to court and her ringing declaration that she was "absolutely innocent" of any wrongdoing.

She described in court how she had "blotted out" the affair from her memory during the intervening years in order to survive.

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