NEWS FOCUS: Health minister Gisela Stuart, who first went to Parliament on St Gisela's day four years ago, is hoping she can hold on to her seat for a second term.Tash Shifrin met her on the campaign trail

Been making plans for Friday 8 June? Junior health minister Gisela Stuart has no idea what she will be doing. The MP who took Birmingham Edgbaston from the Conservatives in 1997 has a majority of just 4,842. The morning after the election could see her celebrating a return to Parliament or, if the Conservative party regains the once true-blue seat of Dame Jill Knight, she could be at the dole office, getting an inside view of social exclusion.

As the countdown to polling day enters its final week, Gisela - nearly everyone seems to call her that - is on the stump, with HSJ in tow.

Much more fun than she might have seemed from conference platforms, the MP turns up in her car, smiles, says hello and jokes a bit. 'There is some rule that candidates shouldn't drive themselves, the agent should drive, ' she says, with not a Millbank minder in sight. This candidate does her own driving.

She asks if doing the interview in a pub is OK. 'It is a bit of a Tory pub, ' she says, 'but you can sit outside.'

She is relaxed, informal - and the weather is lovely. On the way, we tour the leafier parts of the constituency, which is said to have the 10th-highest concentration of professionals in the country.

She points out a church where the vicar sent her a card to mark her first day in Parliament on 7 May 1997 - St Gisela's day, apparently. 'I am sure she was one of the saints that was chopped out when we had the last big review, ' Ms Stuart laughs.

She admits: 'I was quite surprised when I became a health minister. And I very quickly understood why people said health was addictive. I've thoroughly enjoyed it.'

Being a health minister can make a difference on the campaign trail, but mainly because 'they give you a harder time, in case the job encroaches on constituency time'.

Perhaps it was just as well for her that Tony Blair caught most of the flak when Sharron Storer waylaid him at Queen Elizabeth Hospital - in Ms Stuart's constituency - over the treatment of her partner.

'I'll never forget that, ' the MP says. Ms Stuart is in every picture of the incident, but seems to have escaped attention.

'If you're there, ' she says, 'you have two thoughts. First, is it a setup? The parties always try to pull stunts. [Nigel] Hastilow [the Tory candidate] was outside, shouting:

'Are you here to shut it down?'.'

The second reaction is: 'You try to actually hear what's going on.

The thing that concerned me was, did something happen to her partner where the medical treatment was compromised? You try and sort out what the facts are.'

Ms Storer was 'terribly distressed and she had every right to be', Ms Stuart says. 'Her partner wasn't in the right ward on the first day and that added to the stress.'

It is QEH that comes up when you ask the other candidates what Edgbaston voter is concerned about. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Nicola Davies, who calls the MP 'Gisela', and the Conservatives' Nigel Hastilow, who opts for 'Mrs Stuart', both say it is an issue.

Mr Hastilow says: 'Health is coming up a great deal on the campaign trail. People are having to wait longer and longer for operations.'

Ms Stuart's ministerial role is 'not doing her any good on the doorstep', he adds. 'The government wants to stop heart transplant operations at QEH and send them to Manchester. All the people living locally are amazed.

'She's said as the local MP that she's in favour of keeping heart transplants at QEH. The question is, what's she doing about it?'

Mr Hastilow also raises 'the growing bed-blocking crisis in Birmingham'. There are '200 people across the city'waiting for discharge because 'social services is in such a state'.

He says: 'She was given responsibility specifically for sorting it out and hasn't done so.'

He is confident of his chances on election day. 'We are not going to lose it this time.'

Ms Stuart says proposals to cut the number of transplant centres from six to four nationally came from the Royal College of Surgeons. 'The decision about which four hasn't been made yet.'

She adds: 'The way to ensure it stays in Birmingham is to increase donations.' She has made 'strong representations' about the catchment areas for heart transplant centres as well, she says.

On bed-blocking, Ms Stuart concedes that her challenger 'has a point'. She talks about the sums of money health has put into social services, and the 'huge pressure' on social services in the city.

She says there is no quick fix.

'You have to make sure the players keep talking. I've had numerous meetings with health and social services, both separately and jointly, and said you have to sort it out.'

Ms Davies says the heart transplant controversy is 'a big issue locally'. She sees the MP as having a double role. 'Gisela, being a health minister, has had a big impact on that because she's got two hats on.'

She adds that, with the hospital and a medical school in the constituency, 'we have a lot of people working in the health service'.

Their concerns are 'not just about waiting lists - It is about the working environment', says Ms Davies.

She mentions a nurse who is leaving the profession after 15 years.

'She felt squeezed out.'

She adds: 'Quite a lot of people are not sure whether they will even vote. That could be a very important factor, particularly for Gisela, ' with non-voters mainly in areas that are traditionally Labour.

This is borne out in canvassing.

Ms Stuart drives off to a white working-class council estate in Bartley Green. A team of high-energy activists are doing the doors. 'Gisela, Gisela, ' they call, directing her to where a constituent wants to quiz the candidate.

There is a complaint from one woman about her son having to waited six hours on a trolley in accident and emergency, but neighbour disputes are also a recurrent theme: this tree, those kids, that drug dealer.

People often want to vent their anger, the MP says. 'I think you're very brave to come round here, ' says one voter, after giving the minister an earful.

Ms Stuart gives out her constituency office number, promises to write letters, gives a thumbs-up to residents who have two of her posters in the window.

She recalls in particular an incident in which a constituent tackled her about a specific health issue: 'He went into great detail about his infected testicle. I said:

'I know I am a health minister, but I am not a doctor.' I finally convinced him of two things: to vote Labour, and - probably more importantly - to see his GP!'

Looking back, the junior health minister is proudest of having 'made a difference' to ambulance services. 'They were not fully embraced as part of the NHS family. Those guys are up for it, ' she says. 'Give them a challenge and they'll go for it.'

The past four years have 'probably been the most privileged time I've ever had in my life', says Ms Stuart. If she loses on polling day, what then? 'I never believe in life in going back. So I've no idea.'

For a complete list of local candidates and to find out whether Gisela Stuart keeps her seat, check www. hsj. co. uk