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Morris dances round doorsteps

Nic Barnard races to keep up with a minister on home turf amid growing speculation that she will take Blunkett's job

Estelle Morris is running for office - literally. The schools minister is "blitzing" a street in Birmingham, sprinting between homes to meet any voters her team of doorknockers can find.

She talks to them all, and not just to ask for their vote. Where do they work? Where do the kids go? Have they claimed children's tax credit? Are they happy with Labour? Her workers have to pull her away.

In these control-freak days, New Labour decrees that candidates should spend just 30 seconds on each doorstep. Estelle - a front-runner to be the next education secretary - is a loyal moderniser, but even she doesn't think much of that.

Yet, despite the enthusiasm and energy that she expends, she is not wild about campaigning. "If I'm dead honest, I prefer doing this when there's not an election," she says, dashing between school gates collaring mums.

"This is where I live. I shop here, I get my pie here at lunchtime. What I love most is people coming up and saying: "Hello, Estelle". In elections I always feel I'm pressing myself on them a bit. But that's politics."

That's also Estelle Morris. The Sun may have annointed her as David Blunkett's successor (didn't the paper say the same about Steve Byers?), but she remains backward at coming forward. She'd rather spend the campaign here than at profile-raising Millbank press conferences.

Here comes Gordon Brown, to visit her Yardley constituency - a sign her 5,300 majority is not taken for granted. Estelle - nervy, chatty, checking everything - becomes a shadow at his side. The Chancellor hurtles through City College's engineering worshops - pallid, jowly but brusquely charming, glad-handing trainee mechanics. New Labour minders follow, dead-eyed, aloof, as pasty as their boss.

When Brown has gone, Estelle comes back to life. They love her here. Sue Knottenhelt, the college's vice-principal, says: "When she became a minister, I thought she'd turn up in a limo, but she drove up in her own car with her anorak. I get letters from her about constituents who can't find the right course."

Ms Morris says she has dealt with 12,000 enquiries in nine years. And Yardley gives her a check on how she has done in four years as a minister. Any claim that Labour has not delivered is countered by citing a local school - she knows them all well.

We screech to an unscheduled halt at a school's half-built dining block (private finance initiative-funded) then leap back in the car for Sheldon Heath's impressive new learning centre, a jewel of Excellence in Cities.

"They talk to me as their local MP, not as a minister," she says of her local heads, implying they're not afraid to tell unvarnished truths.

She has her hand in everything in the campaign. She casts around the disused shop taken over for the election. Boxes of leaflets, folded and addressed, wait by the door, ready to go. Signposts fill one corner next to stacks of poster boards, waiting to be tied to lampposts.

Is this Estelle's last time with The TES? Blair likes her and needs more women in the Cabinet. But with almost her entire parliamentary career spent in education, surely he will move her on? "I'll see what comes," she says diplomatically. But as she waves us off, she says: "See you after the election." Is that politeness or does she know something we don't?

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