Tony Blair went into hospital today for heart treatment after suffering a health scare while on holiday in August.
The fresh question mark over the Prime Minister's health comes as The Independent can reveal that he has bought a Georgian house for about £3.5m in an exclusive part of central London. It will become his family home when he leaves Downing Street.
Mr Blair signalled last night that he intends to serve at least another four years as Prime Minister, which would enable him to match Margaret Thatcher's 11 years in power. However, he announced that he would quit shortly before the following general election and would not seek a fourth term.
The Prime Minister, 51, who was admitted to hospital a year ago with an irregular heart beat, suffered a recurrence during his month-long summer break. Today he was having a "catheter ablation", under which a catheter will be fitted to give off pulses of energy to stop his heart "short-circuiting" again. Doctors advised Mr Blair to have the medical procedure, described by No 10 as standard, after his second flutter.
It will not require surgery but he will have a local anaesthetic and be sedated for a couple of hours. He may stay overnight in hospital but intends to return to work on Monday and go ahead with a long-planned visit to Africa next week.
Aides brushed aside suggestions that a second scare would cast doubt on how long Mr Blair would stay on. They said he would serve a "full term" if Labour wins the next election but would stand down "towards the end" of the parliament to allow time for his successor to establish himself before the election. "He wants to do at least another four years," said one close ally. That message will not be welcomed by Gordon Brown, the front-runner to succeed, who fears he will inherit a Labour government in its dying days.
Speculation that Mr Blair might leave sooner rather than later will be fuelled by the revelation that he has bought a home in Connaught Square, which will be rented out until he leaves No 10. The Blairs have financed the purchase partly on the basis of Mr Blair's future earnings when he is no longer Prime Minister, which include a likely seven-figure sum from his memoirs.
Close allies insisted yesterday that the Blairs' move reflected their desire to get back into the property market after a gap of almost eight years rather than anything about his political intentions.
When approached by The Independent last night, Downing Street confirmed that the Blairs had bought a house in central London. It is understood that sale was completed recently and that the house will provide a family home and offices for Mr and Mrs Blair.
In addition to Mr Blair's future earnings, the couple will also raise money for the deal by selling the two flats they bought in Bristol two years ago which were at the centre of the "Cheriegate" controversy. It emerged almost two years ago that Peter Foster, a convicted conman and the then boyfriend of her lifestyle guru Carole Caplin, had helped Mrs Blair with the purchase despite initial denials by No 10. One flat was bought for the Blairs' eldest child, Euan, who is attending Bristol University but he has barely lived in the property.
When Labour won power in 1997, the Blairs sold the family's London house in Richmond Crescent, Islington, after they were advised that the security arrangements would have disrupted their neighbours. They deeply regret missing out on the London property boom and not buying another house. Instead, they moved into a flat above 11 Downing Street, previously the Chancellor's residence, which is bigger than the flat above No 10.
The cost of the new house is bound to raise eyebrows in the Labour Party and there will be some relief in Mr Blair's circle that his purchase did not emerge during the party's annual conference in Brighton, which ended yesterday. A source said: "The loan is to be raised on the strength of his future earnings. This is going to be a difficult moment for Blair because he will be seen to be deserting his Islington roots. Apart from the fact that it is shockingly vulgar to buy such a large property in that part of London, more importantly it raises serious questions about his future role in Downing Street."
A local estate agent said last night that the square had seen a very high turnover of property with four houses sold this year and at least six more on the market. The Blairs' is believed to have been owned by a fine art expert who last night said he did not know the purchaser's identity. Neighbours say he was so delighted at the price that he was prepared to have the transaction delayed over the summer.
The house is a four-storey five-bedroom house with a small garden at the back. It backs onto a mews and a private nursery school that would be suitable for Leo, the youngest of the Blairs' four children.
Connaught Square, which is near Marble Arch and borders Hyde Park, comprises 45 grand Georgian houses. The square's most infamous resident was the disgraced former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken.