Jokes, thanks and a win on points as Blair makes a hearty returrn

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Tony Blair bounced back from his heart scare with a confident performance at prime minister's questions yesterday which allayed fears among Labour MPs about his health.

After returning from the abortive talks in Northern Ireland at 12.30am yesterday, Mr Blair was said by aides to be "full of beans" at 8am when he began preparing for the questions with his staff.

His official spokesman denied negotiations in Belfast were called off for the night on Tuesday because of Mr Blair's heart problem. His spokesman said the pause was sought by Northern Ireland's political parties. A doctor did not accompany Mr Blair to Belfast.

Mr Blair joked about his health yesterday in a speech in the City of London, saying the organisers had told him: "Just speak from the heart." He told photographers: "Here I am, I feel great."

With all eyes on him in the Commons, Mr Blair settled the nerves of Labour MPs by making light of the irregular heartbeat which caused him to be taken to hospital on Sunday. Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP, told the Prime Minister he welcomed his "rapid return to robust health". Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, said: "Can I personally welcome you back to the despatch box and say I am personally glad to see that you are clearly back to full health."

Mr Blair thanked the Opposition leader and joked about how he found reading Liberal Democrat spending commitments an "excellent form of relaxation". But the Prime Minister and Tory leader clashed over the Government's record on crime. Later, Tory MPs admitted Mr Blair had "won on points" and they expressed concern about Mr Duncan Smith's performance.

The Tory leader said there were more than a million victims of violent crime for the first time in history last year, and the number of violent offences had risen by 70 per cent since Labour came to power. The crime figures showed the Government has "totally failed", he said.

Ridiculing Mr Blair's desire for "eye-catching initiatives" on crime, Mr Duncan Smith said: "People don't want any more eye-catching initiatives. They want criminal-catching initiatives."

Mr Blair attacked the Tories for opposing the Government's Criminal Justice Bill in the Lords and said crime had doubled under the last Tory Government. He insisted crime had fallen overall since 1997, adding: "The chances of being a victim of a gun crime in this country are lower than virtually any major country in the industrialised world."

In his speech at the Charter Mark awards ceremomy, Mr Blair said people working in the public services did a "fantastic job" and that the country could be proud of their efforts. But he noted that around the world public services were under pressure, with citizens making greater demands in pensions, law and order and social inclusion while governments faced high deficits.

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