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Blair Undergoes Treatment for Irregular Heartbeat, Sets Off Succession Speculation  - 2004-10-01

British Prime Minister Tony Blair entered a hospital Friday for a procedure to remedy an irregular heartbeat. He says the treatment is routine and expects to return to work on Monday. On the eve of the procedure, Mr. Blair said he would seek a third term in elections expected next year, but would step down after that. The Blair announcement has triggered speculation about his replacement.

Tony Blair's surprise announcement came during an interview on British television. The 51-year-old prime minister said he wanted to end the guessing on how long he plans to stay in office.

"If I am elected, I would serve a full third term," he said. "I do not want to serve a fourth term. I don't think the British people would want a prime minister to go on that long. But I think it is sensible to make plain my intention now."

Mr. Blair led his Labor Party to power in 1997. Public opinion polls indicate Labor is favored to retain control of parliament in elections expected next May.

The prime minister's pledge to serve a full term if re-elected has been met with skepticism by political commentators. In an editorial, the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper said the countdown to the transition of power has begun.

A columnist for the liberal Independent newspaper, Michael Brown, doubts Mr. Blair could realistically hold office for another four years, if he is re-elected.

"The speculation on the leadership of the Labor Party will start on the assumption of a general election which the Labor party ought to win," he said. "That will happen next May, on the 5th. On the 6th of May every columnist will then be writing up: 'When is Tony Blair going to go?' Clearly it will be well short of the end of four years."

The co-chairman of the opposition Conservative Party, Liam Fox, says if Labor wins the election, the Blair government will be consumed by the contest to replace the prime minister.

"It will mean that the energies of the cabinet would be about the war of succession to Tony Blair, rather than the problems afflicting Britain," he said.

However, the prime minister's deputy, John Prescott, rejects the view that Mr. Blair's announcement will undermine his authority.

"I don't see this prime minister at any stage being a lame duck. He'll be a very effective prime minister right up until the time he went," he said. "Of course if he's going there will be a replacement procedure that comes in, and no doubt that will be decided by those that want to do that job."

Most observers say finance minister Gordon Brown is the likely successor to Mr. Blair. The prime minister said Mr. Brown would be what he called "a superb" Labor party leader.