Technically speaking, Kate Josephs didn’t lie.
For weeks, the former head of the government’s Covid taskforce was asked by journalists in Sheffield – where she is now the city council’s chief executive – if rumours she had attended illegal Downing Street parties in December 2020 were accurate.
For weeks, she flatly denied they were. Reporters were told their questions were vexatious. The editor of the city newspaper, The Star, was repeatedly assured Josephs had never had drinks at Number 10.
What she failed to disclose, however, was that she herself had thrown her own leaving party at the Cabinet Office right next door.
As the rest of the country struggled without seeing friends and family that Christmas, Josephs – the very person in charge of drawing up those restrictions – enjoyed a wine and champagne bash with colleagues. An email invite was reportedly sent to more than 40 people in departments across Whitehall.
Now, after her duplicity was finally uncovered, Sheffield is a city incandescent.
While Boris Johnson’s own conduct continues to cause as much fury here as anywhere else, it is the behaviour of the Halifax-born chief exec – who earns £190,000 a year leading the council – that feels both more personal and more egregious.
The fact she appears to have deliberately misled (if not quite lied to) the very people she is supposed to serve has added an aggravating factor that many here feel is unforgivable. The fact she has since apologised unreservedly - “I am truly sorry that I did this and for the anger people will feel” - appears to have done little to temper that sense. Pertinently, amid growing calls for her to resign or face disciplinary procedures, there is now a sense that this crisis is beginning to engulf the entire political leadership of this Labour-and-Green-run authority.
“The city is furious, it is dismayed,” says Lord Paul Scriven, the Lib Dem peer who led the city council here between 2008 and 2011 “Not just because she broke the rules when the rest of us were following them but because she tried to hide it. People feel she has to take personal responsibility for that.
“I was stopped nine times at the station this week. I had to catch a later train because so many people were telling me how angry they were. I’ve had one person write to me to say that, on the day she was sipping champagne, they had to say a last goodbye to their mother-in-law on an iPad. Sheffield deserves better than that.”
Her ability to do her job effectively, he reckons, is no longer credible: “all this hurt can now only be settled if she takes a good long look in the mirror, does the honourable thing and…resigns”.
That she has not done so already – indeed, she is currently enjoying paid annual leave – appears to only be exacerbating and widening the potential fallout of the scandal.
Although the council has announced cross-party committee to investigate the issue, the fact that all senior councillors have stonewalled questions on the subject has only added to local fury. Residents here feel like their concerns are being ignored by the very people who should be representing them.
And, with local elections barely three months away, there is some suggestion Labour and the Greens may end up paying at the ballot box – creating the bizarre possibility that both parties could lose South Yorkshire council seats over a scandal that started with a Tory prime minister.
“We all have to make a decision,” says Lord Scriven. “Do we stand on the side of the vast majority of Sheffielders who have made huge personal sacrifices in a pandemic or do we stand on the side of a person who admitted she broke the rules and only came clean when she broke the rules?
“Councillors now have to make their own decision, and the people of Sheffield will then make up their minds about the integrity of those particularly councillors. But they need to understand this city has integrity running through it and it’s not in a position to forgive and forget those senior people who let down the city and let down the side.”
A guide to the public mood, indeed, may be The Star’s inbox. It’s had more letters about Josephs in the last five days than on any other topic this century, according to the editor – including Brexit. The vast majority, it barely needs saying, are not happy.
“People feel she was bang to rights and I think they are astonished the council isn’t taking a stronger line,” says James Whitworth the paper’s award-winning cartoonist. “A reasonable person cannot sell this any other way than what she did was morally bankrupt, and people want that redressed. They are seething.”
The bigger problem, he suggests, may be that, while Labour might lose a few seats at May’s elections if they don’t act on the issue, the party will almost certainly remain in control of the council as they have done for most of the last half century.
“So what happens is people feel impotent and they turn off local politics completely,” he says. “They become apathetic, and that damages democracy here - all because one person couldn’t follow the rules that she herself set.”
Yet for now Josephs – and council leader Terry Fox – give the impression of trying to tough out the consequences.
That cross-party committee will look at the issue but, while such a committee would be the first statutory step towards any disciplinary, no details have been released on what exactly it will investigate or when it will conclude.
Josephs herself, meanwhile, has refused to comment since apologising in a limited statement on Friday.
For now, then, Sheffield - where almost 1,400 people have died with Covid - waits, still incandescent.
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