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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 December, 2003, 15:45 GMT
New squabble over rugby reception
England rugby fans in Trafalgar Square
Hundreds of thousands are expected at the victory parade
Politicians are continuing to squabble over the Downing Street reception for England's World Cup-winning rugby team.

No opposition MPs were originally invited to the event, which follows a victory tour through London on Monday.

But Tony Blair dismissed as "nonsense" claims he had turned the reception into a political stunt, and said other party leaders would be invited if they asked.

Tory leader Michael Howard replied: "I always thought if people wanted you to come to something, they invited you."

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to descend on central London to catch a glimpse of the team parading the William Webb Ellis Trophy after last month's 20-17 victory over Australia.

Traffic is likely to be severely disrupted ahead of the 1200 GMT parade on two open-topped buses, and fans have been advised to allow plenty of time to get there.

The England squad will be leaving Marble Arch at noon and continuing down Oxford Street, Regent Street, Haymarket and Pall Mall East to Trafalgar Square, where they will remain until about 1320.

This is a national event that should be celebrated by everyone, not turned into a party political stunt by New Labour
Julie Kirkbride, Tory sport spokeswoman

They will then attend go to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen, and Downing Street for an early evening reception.

The prime minister denied he had hijacked the Downing Street event so Labour could share in the champions' glory.

"I hope people pay absolutely no attention to some of the nonsense in the papers suggesting otherwise," he told Sky's Sunday with Adam Boulton programme.

"As far as I am concerned I don't mind who comes. I am absolutely delighted to have the Conservatives there, the Liberal Democrats, whoever wants to."

All Mr Howard had to do was "pick up the phone and ask," he said.

But Mr Howard seemed less than impressed at the suggestion, and in a round of interviews during a visit to Scotland, said: "If Mr Blair wants me to phone up and ask for an invitation, I'm happy to do that."


But he went on: "He doesn't seem to understand he is not the only person who is proud of what the England rugby team achieved two weeks ago.

"The whole country is proud of that achievement and it's right the whole country should be represented in any celebrations."

Downing Street has previously said the evening was a government reception to honour the team, and not a party political event.

After Mr Howard's latest comments, a Downing Street spokesman said: "As the prime minister made clear this morning, if Mr Howard wishes to attend he's welcome.

"We do hope every effort is made on all sides to ensure any potential party political controversy is not allowed to intrude into what is a great national day."

Some central London roads will be closed to traffic from mid-morning for safety reasons, and remain closed until crowds disperse.

Buses will be diverted away from the area from 1000 GMT and some tube stations, including Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Bond Street, Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross, could be overcrowded or temporarily closed.


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