As she heads towards her first anniversary as Canterbury and Whitstable MP, Rosie Duffield talks to Alex Claridge about her remarkable year
In the run-up to the 2015 general election, Labour candidate Hugh Lanning took to the stage in a public speaking event at Canterbury Christ Church University.
A 1980s-style union bruiser straight out of central casting, Hugh used the evening to drone on about Palestine and told anyone concerned about immigration that they were racists.
It was uninspiring stuff.
A slide beamed on to a screen behind him carried the words: “Hugh Lanning: Canterbury’s first Labour MP?”
Was that so inconceivable – even if the constituency had been Conservative since the mid-19th century?
The 2015 election, after all, was the one we were told would return a Labour government. It didn’t – and instead the Conservatives were able to ditch their erstwhile Lib Dem coalition colleagues.
Two years later and we were at it again, the political landscape of the country having been transformed by the vote to leave the European Union.
Theresa May’s snap June 8 election, we were told, would strengthen the Conservatives’ grip on power.
It didn’t as Labour made key gains – one of which was right here in Canterbury and Whitstable.
It was an extraordinary and historic occasion, unforeseen by virtually everyone – including the bookmakers and pollsters. They believed that Sir Julian Brazier, the sitting Conservative MP with 30 years under his belt, would ease to victory – especially as this ardent Brexiteer faced no challenge from Ukip which had decided not to stand.
Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the victory of Labour’s Rosie Duffield is one of the most extraordinary episodes of the entire 2017 election.
The Rosie Duffield story, however, does not start when she was elected on June 8, 2017. It starts when she was selected as Labour’s candidate precisely a year ago.
“No one expected the snap election, obviously” Rosie tells me as we meet in the Willows Secret Kitchen in Stour Street.
“I was planning to stand in 2020 just to see how that went. Canterbury was regarded as never winnable anyway so I thought this would be good practice for the future.
“Then the election was called quite a lot earlier so I thought I might as well do what I was thinking of doing anyway. I might as well have a go now.”
With only about 20 hours left to go before the deadline for putting herself forward, Rosie applied to be the candidate. Another five other people also went for it.
The announcement she had been selected came and Rosie took to the campaign trail.
Unfamiliar with her, we soon learned she was a petite single mum to two boys who had been a teaching assistant, done some tv work and was pursuing a career in writing political comedy.
She looked and sounded very different to forgettable Labour candidates who had stood before her, to Hugh Lanning, to an oily tick called Alex Hilton parachuted in from London in 2005 and to the 2010 candidate Jean Samuel (who?).
Rosie injected tonic to a campaign pundits were nevertheless still convinced was a foregone conclusion. She was charming, funny, easy to talk to and looked younger than her 45 years. Never guarded, she sounded honest about everything. She talked – and still talks – like a human being, not a politician.
Midway through the campaign a shock poll emerged which suggested that far from being a one-horse race, Rosie was very much in with a shout.
We had got used to pollsters’ miscalculations in the past, but the bookies who are rarely wrong hadn’t changed their minds. I called Rosie up and asked her about the poll.
“This might actually be doable,” she told me. It wasn’t an arrogant boast. Rosie was out pounding the streets, she was talking to people, she sensed something was in the Canterbury air.
“People kept telling they were going to vote for me,” she says looking back to the campaign.
“They were telling me they were really excited there was a woman standing. They were happy there was someone younger. They were fed up and needed a change.
“I kept hearing that on the doorstep. I was thinking that they were just being really nice. But it was all really encouraging.
“Then there came a point towards the end of the campaign that I said to my boys ‘look, this is beginning to look possible’. They were really excited.
“I had to tell them not to get carried away. It’s never happened here, I said. It isn’t going to happen here. I said people are just saying that on social media and the polls are good, but it still isn’t going to happen.
“I just thought I really wanted to narrow the gap between us and the Conservatives, that we could mix things up and even scare Julian a bit, that’s what I really thought I’d be able to do. But then, well, something else happened.”
On June 9, 2017 Canterbury and Whitstable awoke to discover that it had its first Labour MP and its first female parliamentarian.
Rosie, ably helped by her campaign mastermind Mike Bland, had pulled off an unthinkable 187-vote victory.
So a year on how does she think this happened? Rosie muses and blows out her cheeks: “That’s the million dollar question.
“I think people really did notice there was a woman standing. I didn’t expect it to make that much of a difference, but it did.
“We also reached out to people in the villages and I think people just thought they were voting for change, for something different.
“I think the fact that I was from an ordinary background, that I was a single mum, helped. I’ve been in this area for 20 years so I knew a lot of the families in the schools I had taught in.”
By June 9 it wasn’t just the families, the people she had met campaigning and those who follow politics who knew her name: seemingly everyone did.
Amid scenes of raucous jubilation, she took to the stage of Canterbury Pride on June 10.
The thousands packed into the Dane John Gardens had just one thing on their lips: “Rosie! Rosie! Rosie! Rosie…!”
Rosie Duffield became something of a celebrity in the aftermath of her shock election victory last year. People would stop her in the street for a congratulatory chat while others requested selfie pictures.
“That’s actually died down, thank God,” says a relieved Rosie, “it really did get too much. I didn’t expect that and it actually really freaked me out.”
Rosie is talking to me in the Willows Secret Kitchen in Stour Street as we look back on the year since she was launched on to the Canterbury political stage – first as the Labour candidate for the 2017 election, then becoming the party’s first ever MP in the constituency.
Now that the initial euphoria of her supporters has died down, Rosie has settled into life as a hard-working MP for Canterbury and Whitstable.
She spends most of the working week in London and tries to make sure she has Sundays off.
But when they do come to her, what is it her constituents most want to talk about.
“Housing,” she replies. “We’ll take their details and try to sort their housing issues out for them if we can.
“It really is the number one issue for people coming to us with a problem. People say ‘I need somewhere to live’.
“Obviously, it’s Canterbury City Council which looks after that. But what we can do is harass them.
“And we have to do it every day. For one of my caseworkers, it really is her full-time job, from nine to five every day.
“It happens because so many people are desperate. In the office we all get properly involved with these people and we all get really upset. You want everyone to have somewhere decent to live, somewhere that’s warm and safe.”
For the first months of her time as MP, the political landscape was dominated by uncertainties over the UK’s departure from the European Union following the referendum of June 2016.
Charlotte Cornell, Rosie’s chief of staff, is with us in Willows and reveals that contact with the MP’s office was 60% about Brexit until December.
“That’s died down,” says Rosie, “but for months we just heard ‘don’t Brexit’ or ‘do Brexit’. It still comes up every now and again, though.”
And it is surely due to rise again in a big way with EU debates taking place in both Houses of Parliament. Rosie will be required to attend numerous Commons votes on the matter.
So how has this ordinary mother-of-two adapted herself to her new life since the June 8 election last year?
“Westminster is really weird. It’s really old fashioned. There are all these rules that it’s impossible to get your head round.
“They don’t make a lot sense. There’s all sorts of rules for when you’re in the chamber on when to stand up, when to sit down, what each Bill and each motion means.
“A lot of people are still learning that. There are people who have been there 20 or 30 years who are still trying to get their heads round it.
“Physically, the building is ridiculous. It’s huge and and you get lost all the time. We end up in some weird places. You might suddenly look up and there’s a sign that reads ‘Prime Minister’ and you think ‘oh, gosh’.
“I actually found myself standing next to Theresa May once by accident but I’ve never actually spoken to her. What am I going to talk to her about – her shoes?
“It’s just a mad place. You don’t get much connection with the real world unless you just try to make sure you do.”
As we wrap up our conversation in Willows, Rosie suddenly realises she hasn’t paid for the drink and cake she had.
She rushes up to the counter whereupon the sole member of staff on duty makes a request: “Can I have a selfie?”
The MP obliges. Despite now being firmly established as the city’s MP, for some she still retains some of that star quality that did so much to ensure she was elected in the first place…