In the summer of 2017 Rosie Duffield pulled off a seismic shock when she was elected MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, turning a “true blue” seat red for the very first time.
Her victory sparked a wave of euphoria and was held up as the start of a sea-change in the political outlook of Kent.
So embroiled has she become in divisive - and mostly national - issues, that the headlines generated by the fallout continue to drown out any admirable work she is doing locally.
The latest controversy centres on her reaction to accusations made in a local blog, which three weeks ago dropped into the inbox of KentOnline's sister paper in Canterbury, the Kentish Gazette.
It was a lengthy message from a so-called Labour informant, claiming - incorrectly - that Ms Duffield had upped sticks permanently to north Wales. She had, in fact, only been property hunting.
It also asked questions of the 50-year-old’s work in the constituency and her low attendance at select committee meetings.
A Gazette reporter called Ms Duffield to put the claims to her, but received no answer.
He then tried other party sources, and within minutes of ending a telephone call with someone close to the MP, Ms Duffield’s number flashed up on his phone.
“I strongly suggest you do not run a story on my privacy and security,” she told him, forcefully.
“The Labour Party are dealing with it, OK? That’s all I’ve got to say on it. It’s being investigated by parliamentary security and it’s an absolute load of rubbish.
“I do not expect to see anything like this in the Gazette, OK? Thank you…”
With that she hung up. There had been no chance to press her further on any of the allegations concerning her work as an MP.
Our reporter had just been doing his job.
The following day - after the blog was posted on the Whitstable Views website - Ms Duffield took to Twitter to say how “more personal, libellous, nasty and fictional c**p” had been published about her.
In the series of tweets, she also claimed she was considering her future in the party.
Among the dozens of replies – mostly in support of the MP – one stood out.
Erin Cooper asked, seemingly sincerely: “Why don’t you fight this with facts? List dates you attended events, meetings, the House of Commons, confirm you live and work in the constituency, clarify what you are working on for your constituents. Prove them wrong.”
Indeed, this appeared to be the best - and easiest - way to silence her doubters.
Still keen to speak to her about the situation, our reporter texted Ms Duffield, but she stressed she wasn’t doing any interviews that week, refusing to answer any questions, even via email.
That week’s paper deadline came and went without any further contact from the MP.
But we pressed again for a sit-down chat.
“Please contact my office to make any requests for interviews,” Ms Duffield replied.
Our reporter did just that and her team responded later that day: “Further to our telephone conversation on February 7, Rosie thanks you for your offer of an interview, but will have to decline.”
We replied: “What about sometime over the next couple of weeks?”
Four days passed without a response.
“Rosie will not be available over the coming weeks for interview,” came the belated reply; ironic in its timing as it arrived within two hours of Ms Duffield appearing on a podcast with The Telegraph.
Two days later she was interviewed on Times Radio.
Ms Duffield used these platforms to tell of “obsessive harassment” at the hands of a faction of the local party, question her lack of support from Labour HQ, and to rubbish any suggestion she had moved to Wales, where she says she had been looking at properties with her partner.
She also used the podcast to claim “my local paper has dedicated quite a lot of column inches to my private life – who I’m dating”’.
A trawl through the archives throws up three times when Ms Duffield’s love life has made the pages of the Gazette.
The first was in 2017, when she had recently got engaged. So determined was she to keep the news private that she tweeted about it, and even shared a picture.
In 2019, we told how she was dating celebrity TV presenter Adrian Chiles - the day after it was reported in national newspapers.
And in 2020, we brought our readers the news that Ms Duffield had broken Covid lockdown rules to meet with her current partner.
Predictably, in neither of the recent interviews Ms Duffield gave was she challenged directly on any of the claims about her work as an MP.
We are keen to do just this, but our efforts to speak with her have been repeatedly rejected without explanation.
Her apparent preference to speak to national journalists is something we’ve become frustratingly accustomed to since she was re-elected in 2019.
Two years prior, few were more surprised than Ms Duffield herself when she wrested control of the constituency from long-standing Conservative MP Julian Brazier.
She vowed to make Canterbury a better place for all, pledging to fight for, among other things, better hospital care, more social housing and improved public services.
But our MP has generated more headlines by finding herself at the centre of one of the most divisive debates in modern society - the conflict between women’s and transgender rights.
Of course, the debate is not unimportant, and her views will be shared by many of our readers, but the fallout from it has seen Ms Duffield clash with the party’s leadership over a lack of support and face calls from an affiliated LGBT+ group for her whip to be removed.
It was also the catalyst for her choosing not to attend last year’s Labour Party Conference - a story which earned many column inches in the national press.
The headlines, Twitter rows and political in-fighting continue to prove an unwelcome distraction to her work tackling the big issues in Canterbury and Whitstable.
Constituents - our readers - want to know what the MP thinks about huge housing developments swallowing up the Canterbury countryside; the delays in proposals to reconfigure hospital services in east Kent; small businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic; the rise in violent crime blighting residents’ lives.
The Gazette - the paper of record in Ms Duffield’s constituency - is the ideal platform through which to do this.
We would love to bring our readers more about what our MP does in the constituency, but her office does not send us press releases, nor alert us to any of her local engagements.
The last sit-down interview the Gazette had with her was ahead of the 2019 election, and the “latest news” section on her website was last updated in November 2020. The net effect is that only those who follow her Facebook and Twitter pages can have any real idea what she is doing locally.
By relying on social media and failing to pro-actively engage with the Gazette, Ms Duffield is neglecting a large number of her constituents.
We’re reduced to following up national headlines, or - when her office chooses to respond - relying on carefully constructed statements which often fail to address the questions posed by the Gazette.
These are usually sent out by whoever happens to be managing Ms Duffield’s communications at the time, and there has been quite the turnover.
The latest contacted the Gazette’s editor directly last month to arrange a meeting, hoping to “explore what I can do to help Rosie get her thoughts and work out to residents”.
The approach was welcomed by the Gazette, and viewed as a chance to build a constructive relationship with the MP, to the benefit of our readers.
But on the morning of the get-together, the new staffer texted: “Sorry I won’t be able to make our meeting today. I or someone will be in touch in the future.”
There has been no further contact.
Last week the Gazette’s editor emailed Ms Duffield, expressing his disappointment - and mystification - that she is choosing not to engage with the paper.
He again invited her to sit down with a reporter for an interview, to speak about her work in the constituency and address the claims made in the blogpost.
There has been no reply.
It leaves many questions still unanswered, not least whether Ms Duffield still lives in the constituency.
The mum-of-two, who claims almost £2,400-a-month expenses for a flat in London, has stated she does not live in Wales - but not said where she now calls her permanent home.
In a recent, carefully worded missive to local party members, responding to the blogpost, Ms Duffield appeared to sidestep the question.
“Although several MPs do not base their family or home in their constituencies, this is not the case for me,” she wrote.
She then went on to twice state that her “family home” is in Canterbury, but stopped short of saying she lived in the city.
Why the obfuscation?
At the 2019 general election the fact Ms Duffield lived locally - while no other big party candidate did - was actively weaponised by campaigners, and would have no doubt won over some voters. Any good politician would have done the same.
But it adds weight to the argument that where she calls home is a matter of public interest, and one some voters may legitimately see as having implications on the time she can spend in the constituency.
Many MPs do not have a permanent residence in the constituency they represent, but where this is the case voters should expect transparency, at the very least.
We have no reason to doubt that Ms Duffield does important work for Canterbury and Whitstable - and examples can be found on her social media - but we’d like to ask her about this.
We’d also like to ask why she attended just 24 of the 47 meetings (51%) of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee between 2020 and 2021.
The average was 79%.
Her standing within the local Labour party, which could yet prove pivotal in determining who the city’s next MP is, is also a matter we’d like to ask Ms Duffield about.
A well-placed source says she is seen as a potential liability to the party’s chances of securing victory at next year’s city council elections.
They also claim she has little hope of winning the ballot for automatic re-selection, in which she would need to secure more than 50% of the vote from local party and trade union members.
If she were to lose, it would put her up against other potential suitors for the candidacy, and the same insider believes her chance of victory would be “slim to none”.
Above all, the Gazette would like our MP to engage with local constituents through a newspaper that has a proud history of holding power to account, and has been commended for doing so in recent years at industry awards both locally and nationally.
Those elected to public office are accountable to their constituents and not above scrutiny.
It’s something former Canterbury City Council leader Simon Cook knows only too well, having been grilled many times about big local issues during his spell in the hot seat.
Tweeting recently of Ms Duffield’s reluctance to talk to the Gazette, the Conservative wrote: “It is a shame, because the Kentish Gazette is one of the better local papers, and does a good job of holding local politicians to account - which is not always fun, but a vital part of the democratic process.”
The Gazette also keeps the city council’s Conservative administration on its toes on a weekly basis, challenging it about everything from bin collections and parking rates, to social housing and litter enforcement.
Its leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, does not shy away from scrutiny in the face of much criticism, recognising that he is answerable to taxpayers across the district.
We would like to see the same accountability from our MP.
Difficult and valid questioning should be answered forthrightly and transparently, and not reframed as a personal attack.
Ms Duffield is a public servant, elected by the public into a role paid for out of the public purse.
The Gazette has no reason to believe her record will not stand up to scrutiny, but as long as she chooses not to engage with her local paper, many of our readers - our MP’s constituents - will continue to be left in the dark.