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Blair heart scare shows flicker of frailty
( 2003-10-20 21:36) (Xinhua)

The messy aftermath of war in Iraq may have dulled Tony Blair's aura of invincibility but his weekend heart palpitations are a jolting reminder that the British prime minister is also hostage to human frailty.

Blair has led from the front during a six-year rule in which he has imposed his will on a once fractious Labour Party, swept to two landslide election victories, and sent British troops into battle across the world.

His centralised style of government -- criticised in Britain for aping Washington's presidential administration -- and overwhelming parliamentary majority have also piled the weight of decision-making on his shoulders.

A summer of damaging revelations triggered by the suicide of an Iraq weapons expert, and growing unrest over flagship health and education policies at home, have only added to the burden.

But just last month, toward the end of his most draining year in power, the 50-year-old premier spoke of seeking a full third term in office to push through what he says is an unfinished centre-left revolution in Britain.

Doctors who treated Blair in hospital on Sunday ordered 24 hours of rest but most medical experts predicted a full recovery and officials insisted nothing had changed.

Blair was "fit, fine, in good spirits and 100 percent recovered" and his appetite for work remained, a spokesman said.

"I believe he is having meetings today and he is resuming his full diary tomorrow and that this issue is completely resolved," Treasury Minister Ruth Kelly told BBC radio.

But the "business-as-usual" message failed to stop some analysts drawing parallels with political careers cut short by illness. Blair himself took the reins of the Labour Party after its leader John Smith died of a heart attack in 1994.

"Is this the end of Blair?" asked the Daily Express newspaper in a front-page headline while the Guardian's political editor Michael White wrote: "A milestone has been passed in the prime minister's march towards the exit door."

Other papers showed galleries of Blair portraits, highlighting how his youthful looks had given way to greying hair and gaunt features during the years in power.

In the last 50 years two British prime ministers, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, resigned as illness and falling popularity took their toll, although wartime leader Winston Churchill successfully hushed up several health scares.

Blair's own family history -- his father suffered a debilitating stroke in early middle age and his mother died young -- could also weaken his determination to soldier on.

Political journalist Peter Oborne said Blair looked "just a fraction more vulnerable today than he did before the weekend" and that his powerful Chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown was a step closer to his ambition of taking over.

"Gordon Brown looks more like a future prime minister than he did before the weekend. The political landscape has changed," Oborne wrote in the London Evening Standard.

Other commentators said Blair's brief hospital treatment would have little impact on his long-term ambitions. Still younger than most of his predecessors when they stepped into Downing Street, Blair exercises regularly. At a summit in Canada last year he bumped into US President George W. Bush in the gym. "An impressive regime," was Bush's judgment.

Anthony Seldon, author of a forthcoming Blair biography, said the revelation of vulnerability would even win the prime minister some public support after a year marked by growing voter disenchantment.

"It will win him some sympathy," Seldon told Reuters. "But it will have zero impact on his future intentions -- as long as he gets a clear bill of health in any future tests."

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