Tony Blair received emergency treatment for a heart condition known as “supraventricular tachycardia” Sunday, sending the British press into a frenzy of speculation about the prime minister’s political future. “Mr Blair looks both politically as well as actually mortal,” declared the Financial Times. The Daily Express went so far as to ask, “Is This the End of Blair?” and wondered if he was a “victim of the war in Iraq.” The Independent said, “[T]hat Blair aura of youth and vitality has been irrevocably damaged, however unfairly,” and the Sun showed a series of photos of the prime minister—one for each year of his premiership—documenting his decline from 1997’s “fresh-faced” chap to summer 2003’s “tired” PM.
Is the job of prime minister a heart attack in waiting? The Independent noted that there’s “no job description, no set hours, and no way of monitoring how effectively time is spent. … For the leader of a party that practices total politics, the temptation must be to overdo it.” What’s more, “like Margaret Thatcher, there is a touch of the workaholic in Mr Blair. His stamina and his capacity to endure a gruelling schedule with little sleep has amazed staff.” Blair is a father of four—his children range in age from teenagers to a 3-year-old—and his spouse is one of Britain’s leading attorneys. As another Independent story observed, he “has had to share parental responsibility for dealing with late-night nightmares and teething troubles.” A cynical op-ed writer in the conservative Daily Telegraph suggested that Blair’s irregular heartbeat “could one day prove invaluable to him politically.” It provides the prime minister “with the ideal exit strategy from politics, to be deployed whenever he needs it.”
Many commentators focused on the succession question. The Daily Telegraph said that news of Blair’s six-hour hospitalization “will shatter assumptions about who will lead the [Labor] party in the next decade.” Like many other papers, the Telegraph noted that Blair took over his party’s leadership after his predecessor, John Smith, suffered a massive heart attack nine years ago: “His sudden passing catapulted Mr Blair into a job no one had expected to be vacant so soon.” After this weekend’s heart scare, predicted the Financial Times, ambitious Laborites will start to forge alliances and jockey for position with renewed energy.
The leading candidate to take over the party when Blair moves on is the man in the No. 2 spot, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The rather dour Brown became a father last Friday, which, the Independent speculated, might allow his “often hidden human side … to shine through.” An editorial in the Times of London counseled Blair and Brown “to work together to handle the trickiest stage of their partnership—an orderly transfer of power.” Still, Brown isn’t a shoo-in for the Labor Party leadership. The FT observed, “[D]yed-in-the-wool Blairites would be less than human if they did not start thinking with a little more urgency about who their champion against the chancellor might be when the leadership vacancy appears.”
Many of the feature stories pegged to Blair’s medical woes were rather maudlin recitations of the ailments that felled prime ministers past—including the gout that killed Lord Derby, the apoplectic seizure that took the life of Lord Portland, and the riding accident that led to Sir Robert Peel’s death. According to the Telegraph, the average age of prime ministers at their death is 73, and 10 of the 42 dead premiers expired on a Tuesday.