PM bars football-mad Cabinet from World Cup

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TONY BLAIR has sparked the ultimate Westminster turf war by clamping down on ministerial trips to this year's World Cup, writes Stephen Castle. The Prime Minister has ruled that only one minister should represent England and Scotland at each match, and that even private visits to cup matches in France should be cleared with Downing Street.

Amid claims of ministerial freeloading and worries over availability of World Cup tickets, No 10 is alarmed that half the Cabinet will be beamed into the nation's living rooms from French stadiums. But in a soccer-mad Cabinet the decision will provoke outrage several times more extreme than benefit cuts, cheques from Bernie Ecclestone or spending on the Millennium Dome.

Spectators are already on the edge of their seats for some classic confrontations. Who, for example, will appear for the Government in the VIP box for the opening match, Scotland versus Brazil, on 10 June?

According to Downing Street, it will be Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland. Over at the Treasury the Chancellor's aides point out that Gordon Brown has already accepted an invitation from his French opposite number, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

If Mr Dewar wins out, several Treasury figures will be as sick as parrots. Mr Brown is such a keen football supporter that, despite his Scottish origins, he went to see England's World Cup qualifier in Rome last year. The trip was organised by the Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson, a former director of Coventry City.

Scotland vs Brazil is unlikely to be the only flashpoint among Westminster's prominent football fans - David Blunkett, Jack Straw and the Prime Minister himself among them. The sports minister and Chelsea fanatic Tony Banks will also have difficulty swinging a trip after arguing yesterday: "It is already clear that tickets will be a problem and we intend to do what we can to get more tickets to ordinary fans. Members of the Government are as keen to go to the World Cup as anyone else. They will have to show restraint."

Mr Blair is said to be determined that the ordinary sports fan does not appear to lose out while his ministers enjoy the perks of high office.

One government source risked his political career by suggesting the problem would have only limited impact on the Scots in the Cabinet: "Their lot will be knocked out after three games."