Gordon Brown and the cricketing authorities are preparing to ban Zimbabwe from touring England in protest at Robert Mugabe's brutal regime.
Yesterday the Government signalled its vehement opposition to plans to stage two Tests and three one-day matches against Zimbabwe next year. It will tell the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) that it believes the tour is unacceptable because of Zimbabwe's human rights record.
Its hard line follows the Prime Minister's decision to boycott an EU-Africa summit attended by Mr Mugabe in Portugal last month. It contrasts with the Blair government's refusal to intervene to prevent England's tour of Zimbabwe in 2004.
Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will meet the ECB shortly to discuss the Zimbabwean tour planned for May 2009. Both David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and James Purnell, the Culture Secretary, share the Prime Minister's distaste for the visit. The ECB would almost certainly accept a government's plea to withdraw the invitation, even if it meant paying a fine.
A Whitehall source said the cricketing authorities would be left in no doubt about Mr Brown's opposition to the proposed matches as they would undermine Britain's condemnation of the chaos and corruption in Zimbabwe. "They are going to be fully informed on the Government's opinion and stance," he said.
The ECB would have to pay an estimated 225,000 compensation for cancelling the one-day fixtures under International Cricket Council (ICC) rules. But there would be no penalty for scrapping the five-day fixtures as Zimbabwe is no longer officially classified as a Test-playing nation.
It is understood that talks between the ICC, the ECB and the Zimbabwean authorities have already taken place over the tour.
Mr Brown's spokesman said: "We obviously will need to discuss this with the ECB closer to the time. A decision will have to be made about this at some point but we are not at that point at the moment."
England pressed ahead with a tour of Zimbabwe four years ago after the ICC threatened the ECB with large fines if the team pulled out. Tony Blair said he opposed the event, but was powerless to stop it as it was purely a matter for the cricketing authorities. Opposition parties condemned the tour and Peter Hain, a cabinet minister, protested that it would give "comfort to Mugabe's murderous rule". International condemnation of Zimbabwe has hardened since then and the Australian Prime Minister intervened last year to stop Australia touring the country.
Even if the ECB cancels the May 2009 fixtures, it faces a further problem the following month when England hosts the Twenty20 World Cup. One possibility is that the Government could refuse to issue visas to Zimbabwean cricketers.Reuse content