LOANS for lordships, sexual capers, a clamour for resignations: like kaftans and Duran Duran, sleaze is back in vogue. As with any revival, however, comes the suspicion that the new is not as good as the original. Not like it was in our day, the old guard mutters.

When it comes to Dame Shirley Porter and her reign at Westminster City Council in the 1980s, they might have a point. Even now, as Andrew Hosken demonstrates in this, the first biography of Porter, the tale of gerrymandering and graveyards for sale remains a shocking one.

For those who may have forgotten, Porter was Margaret Thatcher's Mini-Me, the Andrew Ridgley to her George Michael. While Thatcher ruled the country, Porter held sway as the Tory leader of Westminster City Council. The position was not her first choice. She had been turned down as a Commons candidate because she was not bright enough, and as a prospective MEP because she knew nothing about Europe.

As the second daughter of Jack Cohen, the market trader who went on to found Tesco, Porter was conditioned to succeed. What she lacked was an opportunity to do so in her father's business. Cohen would give his two daughters anything, except a seat on his board. This snub, believes Hosken, goes a long way to explain Porter's ruthless determination to prove her worth as leader of a flagship Tory council.

Westminster provided an obvious chance to shine. Within its boundaries lay some of the most expensive property in the world, the seats of political power, and several royal palaces. Porter began her leadership as she meant to go on, by instilling fear in her underlings. Staff were sent letters telling them to shape up or be shipped out. They were not the only ones to find Dame Shirley a trial: Margaret Thatcher, that other grocer's daughter, could not bear the woman.

For a time Porter was nothing more than a harmless enough publicity seeker, busying herself with crusades against litter and the sex industry. What changed her from a media muppet into a gerrymanderer was almost losing the 1986 local elections. From this experience the "homes for votes" policy, known officially as Building Stable Communities, was born.

Porter's plan was simple. To win in 1990 and keep control of the council, the Tories had to succeed in eight key wards. But within these wards were many people she assumed were Labour voters: mainly the homeless and council-house tenants. Her plan was to get rid of the suspected reds and f log council houses to true blue (she hoped) yuppies. As part of the policy she exported Westminster's homeless to other boroughs and, in one infamous instance, moved them into flats riddled with asbestos.

While this scandal gathered pace, another broke. In her drive to cut costs and out-Thatcher Mrs Thatcher, Porter had sold three cemeteries for 5p each to a buyer who was only interested in the lucrative parcels of land that sat alongside them.

As the cemeteries fell into disrepair, the bereaved and their representatives - including Nigella Lawson, the Billy Fury fan club and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands - went to warwith Dame Shirley. She lost. In time, the land and buildings would be sold on for hundreds of thousands of pounds and the council would be forced to buy the graveyards back. As Hosken concludes, the sell-off was "possibly the most witless, the most heartless and the most ludicrous disposal of an asset in the history of local government".

With its dastardly deeds and cavalcade of grotesque characters, Porter's reign could have come straight from the pen of Dickens. But this was no work of fiction; Porter's actions had real consequences, and Hosken outlines them with impressive vigour.

It would have been easy, given Porter's cartoonish character, to outline the case against her in broad brush strokes. Hosken, a reporter on the Today programme, does the opposite. He builds his story the old-fashioned way, placing detail upon detail, fact upon fact, great quote upon great quote, until there is a mountain of damning evidence before the reader. Like all good radio reporters, he proves himself to be an excellent writer. Porter was eventually found guilty of gerrymandering and ordered to pay a surcharge of GBP43m. She claimed, however, to have only GBP300,000 to her name and no-one could find the missing millions. At this point, Hosken, who had followed the story for years, came into his own. Thanks to a falling out between Porter's son and a business partner, it emerged that the dame, now living in Israel, was still a multi-millionaire. After Hosken exposed this on Today, she

agreed to pay Westminster GBP12.3m.

Although Nothing Like a Dame is an exhilarating read, the need to keep the story rattling along means it falls down slightly in two areas. Hosken, having done such a superb job with the facts, shies away from speculating about the stuff of Porter's soul. We catch glimpses of her as the unhappy little girl at boarding school and the woman who had a room in her house stuffed with dolls and soft toys, but we learn little of what she was like as a mother, a friend, a wife.

The other missing element is context. Hosken tells the reader that Porter committed "the greatest act of corruption in British local government "without mentioning the other scandals that have happened on the lowest rungs of the governing ladder. The Porter reign may have been politically reprehensible and outstandingly vulgar, but it rather pales in comparison with, say, the bribery, imprisonment, and the fall of a cabinet minister that featured in the Poulson scandal 20 years earlier.

There is another doubt, one more easily brushed aside. It might be wondered why the talented Mr Hosken is revisiting an old story of corruption when there are so many fresh scandals. His main reason is that the Porter saga "demonstrates the depths politicians can plumb when faced with the prospect of losing power". Indeed. Nothing Like a Dame is, remarkably, Hosken's first book. In days like these it will not, one suspects, be his last.

Nothing Like a Dame, Andrew Hosken, Granta, GBP20