Aides predict scare will push Blair to speed up reforms

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Indy Politics

Close allies of Tony Blair said yesterday that he will not slow down after his heart scare and predicted that the incident would make him even more determined to achieve his goals before he leaves Downing Street.

As Mr Blair held meetings in No 10, despite being told to take it easier for 24 hours after being treated at Hammersmith Hospital on Sunday, his official spokesman said he was "fit, fine, in good spirits and 100 per cent recovered."

At Westminster, MPs speculated about whether Mr Blair's condition would shorten his tenure at Downing Street. But his officials issued a strong "business as usual" message by listing a busy programme for the rest of the week.

The message was designed to prevent any lasting damage to the Prime Minister's image from the irregular heartbeat he suffered on Sunday. However, there was concern among his allies that any further health problems would provoke unwelcome speculation that he would stand down.

Downing Street said Mr Blair was "heavily sedated" for 20 minutes on Sunday afternoon at Hammersmith Hospital while he was given electric shock therapy to stabilise his heartbeat. But No 10 stressed that he was not given a general anaesthetic and did not undergo an operation.

The Queen, the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, were informed before Mr Blair was sedated. Although Mr Prescott could have taken over in the event of more prolonged treatment, officials said this did not arise on Sunday.

Mr Blair's official spokesman played down the heart problem as "a relatively minor condition", adding: "He's getting on with it and his appetite for the job is the same as it was last week."

One minister close to Mr Blair said: "I don't think this will make him slow down. It might have that effect on some people, but I believe it will make him speed up. He will realise that he has to get on with it."

A Blair aide added that the scare would merely reinforce the Prime Minister's determination to achieve his two main goals - reforming public services and taking Britain into the euro. "This is a reminder that he won't be there forever and has only got one shot," he said.

While a euro referendum is regarded as impossible before the next general election, expected in 2005, Mr Blair may be keen to hold one as soon as possible afterwards. Despite his recently expressed desire to serve a full third term, friends believe he might stand down after such a referendum.

The affair prompted speculation that Mr Blair would have to delegate more decisions to his ministers, but cabinet colleagues doubted that he would change his hands on approach. One said: "He has a good work-life balance. He is not a workaholic. He knows how to chill out and relax and his family help him to do that."

The only engagement Mr Blair cancelled yesterday was a planned Commons statement on last week's Brussels summit, delivered instead by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. MPs cheered as he reported that the Prime Minister was is in very good form and fully recovered from yesterday.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, said: "I understand people's concerns but there is no reason for anxiety. There's no reason at all why he can't continue just as he has done before as Prime Minister."

As flowers arrived at Downing Street for Mr Blair, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader said: "My thoughts go out to the Prime Minister. I wish him the very best and a speedy recovery. His family will be feeling it a bit today, and anyone who has a family knows what it's like. Therefore my thoughts go to them as well."

Mr Blair's spokesman said the Prime Minister would see another doctor in the next few weeks, as was usual after being treated for the condition.

"This appears to be one of those things that affects a comparatively large number of people. It's nothing that comes even close to a serious cardiac problem," he said.

He added: "The Prime Minister is somebody who looks after himself and takes a lot of exercise and he's fit and well, and apart from not being in the House for a statement today, his day is pretty much as any other Monday."

Among Labour MPs, however, there was a feeling that, as one put it, "something has changed". Politics is a tough game in which human frailty is seen as a weakness. One MP commented: "This shouldn't make any difference and it may not do so in the long run. But for now, the future canvass looks different."