Superman Tony human after all

TONY Blair's health scare over the weekend has cast a cloud over the inevitability of Labour's third General Election victory in a row.Despite public assurances that his heart condition which lead him to him being anaesthetised and given electric shock treatment on Sunday afternoon is just a minor blip, there will be inevitable speculation that the strain of six and a half years at the top is beginning to take its toll.

By Graham Dines

TONY Blair's health scare over the weekend has cast a cloud of the inevitability of Labour's third General Election victory in a row.

Despite public assurances that his heart condition which lead him to him being anaesthetised and given electric shock treatment on Sunday afternoon is just a minor blip, there will be inevitable speculation that the strain of six and a half years at the top is beginning to take its toll.

Politics is a cruel business. Human nature dictates that those in the Cabinet who see themselves as eventually succeeding to the leadership of the Labour Party believe that time is closer at hand.


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Chancellor Gordon Brown is Mr Blair's natural successor. Indeed, it is said the two famously struck a deal in 1994 following the death of John Smith – Gordon Brown would stand aside in a leadership contest, and in return Mr Blair would only serve for six or seven years in Downing Street.

The Chancellor would certainly not wish ill health on Mr Blair. But he and indeed the whole Labour Party must now be alive to the prospect of him not leading them at the next election.

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But now that the Prime Minister's health has entered the equation, anything could happen. But before the Chancellor gets too excited – the PM left hospital after five hours – he should consider the remarks of a leading heart specialist at Mr Blair's illness.

A consultant cardiologist at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, Dr Duncan Dymond said yesterday: "In the grand scheme of things it is a relatively minor condition, high in nuisance value but low in gravity.

"It is a minor heart condition. It is not the same as a heart attack ... It is compatible, once treated, with a completely normal quality and quantity of life.

"He may never, ever have another one, there are people who have one attack in their lives, or he may have another one in five years or 10 years. It is impossible to predict. But after a couple of days of rest, there is no real reason for him to stop playing tennis or to stop being Prime Minister, based on this."

That's the positive side of the Mr Blair's condition. Yet inevitably there will be doubts in the mind of wife Cherie and concerns among his children that the Prime Minister, at the very least, must start to take things more easily – and perhaps should consider his long-term future.

Notoriously, prime ministers and politicians tend to consider themselves immortal. Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher would never countenance quitting – Churchill and Thatcher continued way beyond their natural shelf life while Macmillan would have done so had it not been for a prostate problem in 1963.

Tony Blair's natural instinct will be to shrug off his health scare and carry on regardless. As if to prove his infallibility, he held a series of meetings yesterday at Downing Street, his spokesman saying he was "fit, fine, in good spirits and 100% recovered."

Mr Blair is planning to resume his normal schedule today. He will attend his regular audience with the Queen tonight, face questions in the Commons and give a speech on public services tomorrow, and hold his monthly Press conference after chairing Cabinet before setting off on a regional tour on Thursday.

He believes that without him, the Labour Party will lose much of its electoral appeal. The New Labour project could even come to any end, especially if Gordon Brown takes over and returns the party back to its socialist roots.

Superman Blair indeed. But is it worth the candle?

There are mutterings about the Tony Blair inside the party. On Sunday, before news of his illness broke, former minister Glenda Jackson said the Government would be in an "infinitely stronger" position if Mr Blair stepped down. Ms Jackson said his judgment over the Iraq war had been "fatally flawed" and that poor judgment had spread to other controversial policies such as foundation hospitals and student top-up fees.

Backbench Labour MPs are expected to rebel over hospitals and tuition fees, with the possibility that the Government is defeated in the House of Commons.

And in the next month or so, Lord Hutton is due to deliver his verdict into the causes that led to Dr David Kelly committing suicide. Tony Blair may well be damaged – it has been confirmed in evidence to the inquiry that he chaired the meeting in Downing Street that approved the strategy of naming the Government scientist who was the source of the BBC's explosive report on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

So who could blame him if he decides to call it a day. He has a highly paid wife whose career is being held back by her husband's job – she could not fulfil her ambition of being appointed a High Court judge while he remains Prime Minister – and he is devoted to his young son Leo who will be starting school around the time of the next General Election.

If Mr Blair retired tomorrow, at the age of 50, he could earn a seven-figure annual salary from the international lecture circuit and his memoirs would also be a money-spinner.

The stresses and strains of being Prime Minister and party leader have caught up with Mr Blair, including his continual globe trotting in pursuit of the war against terror and the anguish in the Labour Party, the European Union and most of the world over the war with Iraq.

Tony Blair, who doesn't fear electoral defeat at the hands of the demoralised and warring Conservative Party, has always said he will go at a time of his own choosing.

Despite public declarations that all is well, that time may now be nearer than he has previously hinted. And unlike the Conservatives, who are still considering whether to knife Iain Duncan Smith, Labour has a natural leader-in-waiting – Gordon Brown.

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