Revealed: Straw's secret bid to stop Zimbabwe cricket tour

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The Independent Online

* Jack Straw copped plenty of stick last year, when he was filmed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe in the run-up to England's controversial cricket tour of Zimbabwe.

* Jack Straw copped plenty of stick last year, when he was filmed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe in the run-up to England's controversial cricket tour of Zimbabwe.

The Foreign Secretary is no useful idiot, though. For Pandora can reveal that - contrary to previous reports - he made an extraordinary attempt to prevent England's cricketers visiting the country.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show Straw wrote to the England and Wales Cricket Board in January last year, urging them to cancel the trip.

In an emotive letter, he described the "appalling human rights situation" under Mugabe's regime.

"The situation in Zimbabwe is bleak and deteriorating," he wrote. "It is the Government's view that the overall situation is worse today than it was during the Cricket World Cup.

"Zimbabwe is increasingly isolated from the international community ... You may wish to consider whether a high-profile England cricket tour at this time is consistent with that."

The letter's existence contradicts Tory claims that Straw's "soft" on Mugabe, and will further tarnish the ECB, which went ahead with the tour anyway.

Sadly, the ECB has blocked the release of several other letters because - according to the Foreign Office - "they would view disclosure of these communications as a breach of confidence."

There's more on this murky business and I'll return to it tomorrow.

* TONY BLAIR will face one truly formidable opponent, should he set foot in his Sedgefield constituency during the general election campaign.

Clarissa Dickson Wright, pictured, has volunteered to canvass on behalf of the local Tory candidate, Danny Kruger, whose mother, Prue Leith, is a fellow celebrity chef.

"I'll be handing out leaflets and that sort of thing," she tells me. "I'd love to bump into Blair, but of course he's hardly ever there.

"But I'll certainly visit the pub he took George Bush to. All that stuff about those two having fish and chips was nonsense: Bush brought his own chef."

The Fat Lady - whose opposition to Labour stems largely from its recent ban on hunting - is adamant that the PM (majority: 17,000) can be unseated.

"The last Tory knocked 5,000 off his majority, so it's not impossible," she adds.

* WHATEVER HAPPENS to Martin Bashir during the freakshow that is Michael Jackson's trial, TV viewers are unlikely to get another chance to see the film that put him there in the first place.

Although Living With Michael Jackson achieved soaraway ratings, ITV has rejected plans to bring it back to our screens once the child abuse trial is over.

"As a broadcaster, we wouldn't want to be seen to be stirring things up," explains a spokesman. "To be honest, it's extremely unlikely ever to be shown again. Things have moved on in the life of Michael Jackson; things move on."

Elsewhere, Granada retains (potentially lucrative) DVD rights for the film. They'll have to wrestle with their conscience over the rights and wrongs of exercising them.

* THE RECENT cold snap is playing havoc with BBC news bulletins. Anna Ford was struck down with flu at the weekend, leaving junior colleagues to step into the breech.

It's a double blow, since Ford was also due to host Tuesday's Index on Censorship awards in London (the journalist Jonathan Freedland deputised). But friends insist that she's wise to stay at home.

"A couple of years ago, when Anna had a sore throat, she lost her voice half way through the Six O'Clock News ," says a chum. "Sophie Raworth was forced to take over midway through. It went down in the annals of TV cock-ups."

* There is further evidence of Alastair Campbell's inexorable drift towards middle age. On Tuesday, Pandora reported that he'd bought his first pet dog; now I gather that he's started wearing reading glasses.

It's a hot topic in Westminster. "Spectacles are the new moustaches for New Labour," says one pundit. "They're a 'must have' accessory for people in authority.

"Tony Blair wears his increasingly, but as soon as Jack Straw switched from Mr Magoo specs to contact lenses, people began saying his career's on the slide."

In the absence of anything important to do, Pandora e-mailed Campbell yesterday to discuss the matter. But his Blackberry must be playing up: at the time of going to print, no response had come my way.