Rosie Duffield on Kent & Canterbury Hospital, grammar schools and life as the county’s only Labour MP
PUBLISHED: 09:41 06 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:42 06 November 2017
The mum-of-two defied the odds to beat Tory stalwart Sir Julian Brazier in June’s election
When Hollywood actors take to an awards stage and claim they hadn’t prepared a victory speech because they never expected to win, it’s hard to accept it as genuine sincerity, rather than an attempt at modesty.
Yet when Rosie Duffield stepped into a largely-empty House of Commons just under five months ago to be officially sworn in as Canterbury’s first ever Labour MP, she could be heard, courtesy of the chamber’s many microphones, admitting she was “completely terrified”.
Asked if she wanted to swear or affirm when taking the oath of allegiance to the Crown, she replied: “I’m happy to do the Bible bit, whichever that is”.
This was clearly somebody just as surprised and shocked as everybody else in Kent, that she had successfully unseated Sir Julian Brazier, the Conservative stalwart of 30 years, against all odds.
“I had no idea that could be picked up, that was so embarrassing,” she told KentNews.co.uk, burying her head in her hands, as we sat down this week at Westminster.
Arranging such an interview has not come without its challenges, and eleventh-hour cancellations, perhaps again symbolic of an MP taking a while to adjust to a life-changing new role - something she freely admits.
“On the night of the election, I stood thinking ‘this is a bit of a practice and I’d really like to dent Julian Brazier’s majority’.
“But throughout the day I was visiting polling stations and crazy things started happening.
“People wanted selfies with me and I was slightly mobbed wherever I went, which was odd because I’ve always sat on polling stations and helped out, and I thought ‘what’s going on? This is a bit strange’.
“But I probably didn’t take it seriously until about 2.30am when we started getting the numbers in and it looked a lot closer than I thought.
“Even when it was announced I didn’t believe it and we asked for a recount thinking it was the other way around.
“I started seeing my name written down at various things with a badge and it said ‘MP’ and I thought ‘oh, that’s me.’
“It probably took four or five weeks until it really sank in. That sounds crazy but that’s how it felt.
“But I got over that, and it’s lovely being in that chamber. It’s what I’ve dreamed of all my life and now I feel like I belong there a bit more.”
Many analysts, including Sir Julian himself, attributed Ms Duffield’s success to Labour policies on tuition fees and student debt, with the constituency served by three major universities.
The defeated Tory told us earlier in the summer the pledges were “a huge, huge bung” which “attracted a lot of naive young people who have not had to balance a budget before in their lives”.
Rejecting the notion it was solely the youth vote that brought about her victory, Ms Duffield said: “That’s really underestimating young people.
“If you speak to 10 or 20 or 30 students every one will come up with a different reason for voting.
“This assumption it was just about tuition fees and that it was a self-serving vote is really insulting.
“You talk to a student and they’ll tell you there’s so many issues - they’re worried about their parents, their pension, whether they’ll be able to afford a home and the NHS.”
The health service is a particularly significant issue in her constituency, with the Kent & Canterbury Hospital suffering quite drastic cuts to services
East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) controversially announced earlier this year that some 35 people who normally attend by ambulance every day with conditions such as heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia, would instead be diverted to the William Harvey in Ashford and the QEQM in Margate.
The changes, which health chiefs insist are only temporary, but have been in place since June, are the result of the trust struggling to recruit enough permanent consultants, though some vacancies have been filled in recent weeks.
Uncertainty has been further exacerbated by the departure of chief executive Matthew Kershaw in September, who left to take up a role at a think-tank.
Long-term, the trust wants to “reorganise” its services at the three hospitals and is set to bring proposals forward for public consultation in the spring.
Ms Duffield said: “We’re in this weird limbo at the moment of desperately waiting to hear. Obviously all I want is a functioning hospital and an emergency department.
“People are desperate and very worried and suffering and we need that to stop. I’m making as much noise as I can, meeting with them a couple of times a week and bombarding them with letters we get from worried people.
“We need a solution that is going to last and actually solve problems and help people and the NHS have got to bear all that in mind. Let’s see what they come up with.”
Campaigners organised a public meeting last weekend where frustrations were vented and calls grew for a new hospital, after developer Quinn Estates announced earlier this year it was interested in replacing the existing hospital buildings with new ones.
However, the MP was controversially not told of developments by the Conservative leader of Canterbury City Council, Simon Cook, before they were revealed to the media.
“I’ve been apologised to but I didn’t like the way it was announced in the papers, I thought that was quite bad manners,” she said.
“I know other Kent MPs seemed to know more about it than I did as well, which is interesting.”
Not since 2010 has the county had a Labour representative in parliament, and Ms Duffield claims she is in “a unique position” of having to work alongside her 16 Conservative neighbours - as well as Tory-controlled councils - while simultaneously fighting against a government she blames for “capping salaries and NHS cuts”.
She said: “I regularly meet Helen Whately [Faversham and Mid Kent MP] for a chat to discuss local issues.
“It’d be stupid to cut myself off from those people, there’s got to be things we can deal with on a cross-party footing, but of course it’s tricky.
“I’ll do my best but I need more Labour support in the county. We’ve shown it’s possible now; other parts of Kent can get a Labour MP if they want to. It’s not the case that we can write off the whole of Kent as Conservative.
“People are thinking about the policies, what do people stand for? Will the candidate make a good local MP? I want to be a good local MP to represent all the people, not just those who voted for me.
“People from a traditional Tory area are thinking again. It doesn’t have to be that way, think outside the box, it can happen.”
Already in her short tenure, Ms Duffield has faced challenges, being branded “hypocritical” for sending her two children to grammar schools, despite her party’s well-documented opposition to the selective system.
Defending her stance, she claims her son asked eight years ago, when she was “not standing for public office or particularly politically active in the local area”, if he could go to “the school with the climbing wall”, which happened to be Simon Langton Boys.
Then over the weekend she was back in the headlines as it emerged she was paid £500 to appear on Russia Today, a state-funded TV station dubbed “Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channel”, which critics felt undermined her campaigning on LGBT issues, given the Kremlin’s controversial stance on gay lifestyles.
“If anyone spends 20 minutes looking up on the register of interests, they’ll find more Tory MPs that appear on that channel than anyone else,” she said.
“The show I appeared on was a comedy show, it doesn’t have a set of agendas that adhere to Putin’s, whatever that might be.
“My LGBT record speaks for itself, and it upsets me that trolling websites that make up angles like that get to lead the agenda and right-wing newspapers will pick that up as news. It isn’t, it’s a distraction.”
Despite the early obstacles she’s had to face, Ms Duffield is clearly a popular figure already both in the constituency and in Westminster.
She was widely complimented on both sides of the house on her maiden speech, while closer to home, she received something of a rockstar’s reception when she took to the stage at Canterbury’s Pride event a few days after the election.
“It’s so complicated. I’m having to learn every day,” she admitted.
“Suddenly you have to cram all this knowledge in, it’s good for the brain cells, I guess.
“You feel like you’re getting to grips with it and then something else comes along, so it’s a constant learning exercise, which is great and exciting.
“I’m never going to get bored doing this job or take it for granted. The minute I get complacent, I don’t deserve the job anymore.
“I realise how fortunate I am, there’s a lot of work to do, and I’m prepared to do it. What’s not to love?”