PRIME Minister Gordon Brown fuelled speculation he is about to call a snap election when he made a surprise visit to Basildon Hospital.

Staff were only expecting Health Minister, Lord Ara Darzi, to attend the official opening ceremony for the hospital's £60million new heart and lung centre.

Hospital workers could hardly believe their eyes when Mr Brown and Health Secretary Alan Johnson arrived, along with their more junior colleague.

The centre has the capacity to perform 1,400 operations and 2,500 cardiology procedures each year.

This was Mr Brown's second visit to Basildon in four months. He met Labour activists at Pitsea Leisure Centre on the day he launched his campaign to take over from Tony Blair on May 13.

It is also Alan Johnson's second visit to Basildon in four months.

The timing of this latest Basildon trip was initially viewed as a clear indication Mr Brown is about to call a November election...until polls showed the Labour lead over the Tories had narrowed.

The Basildon and East Thurrock constituency has been held by Mr Brown's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Angela Smith, since 1997.

It is expected to be a key election battleground.

Labour's majority could be slashed because of recent boundary changes.

However, Mrs Smith denied the hospital visit was electioneering and said she did not have a clue if an election would be called.

She added: "On July 10, the hospital invited Gordon to the official opening.

"I left the cardiothoracic centre with a lump in my throat, after I was shown around for the first time in June. I'm so proud something with facilities this good is in Basildon and I've spoken to Gordon about it several times.

"I really wanted him to come to the official opening and think it's great for the town he came along.

"I don't know whether he is going to call an election.

"It's not something he would talk to me about, but what I can tell you is he would have come down here regardless of his election plans."

Staff at Basildon Hospital confirmed they invited Mr Brown to the official opening, but they were only expecting Lord Darzi.

Stephen Metcalfe, the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock, said he was ready to challenge Mrs Smith.

He believes Mr Brown's visit was a publicity stunt.

He said: "I don't know when he is going to call the election.

"I think he will wait and see the opinion polls first, but I would certainly call it interesting timing. I think most people thought the centre was officially opened in July."

However, Basildon Hospital spokeswoman Pat Trinnaman said: "The Essex Cardiothoracic Centre opened to its first patients on 1 July.

"On July 10, the chairman of Basildon University Hospital wrote to the Prime Minister inviting him to perform the official opening of the centre, and suggested a number of dates in October.

"He told him this would be a major boost for the local community which is very proud its local hospital is hosting such an important new NHS service.

"We were delighted that the Prime Minister was able to accept our invitation."