No 10 backs down over reception for World Cup winners

Downing Street was forced to climb down yesterday and invite opposition MPs to celebrate England's World Cup rugby victory after Tony Blair was accused of hijacking the event for political gain.

David Hill, Mr Blair's director of communications, reversed the decision to reject calls from Conservative and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers to attend Monday's reception at No 10 for the victorious England squad.

He said the Conservative culture, media and sport spokeswoman, Julie Kirkbride, and her Liberal Democrat counterpart, Don Foster, would now be asked to attend.

Both parties had accused Mr Blair of using the reception for political gain by limiting invitations to government ministers. Ms Kirkbride told the BBC that Mr Blair had "opened himself up to suggestions that he has hijacked this successful event for his own glory", while Mr Foster said Downing Street was "politicising its reception for the England rugby team".

Downing Street had insisted yesterday morning that it was sticking by its decision. A spokeswoman said about 120 members of the England squad, coaching staff and back-up officials would attend, and about half a dozen ministers were expected. She said: "This is not a party political event. This is a government reception to mark the achievement of the rugby team and the backroom staff and their coaches."

But by the early evening, Mr Hill had relented. He said: "The statements in this morning's newspapers on behalf of the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties have introduced a strong note of party political controversy into our national rugby celebrations.

"While it is the case that opposition politicians do not receive invitations to government receptions, the Government is determined on this occasion to ensure that party politics does not intrude.

"To avoid any possibility that either the celebration of the England World Cup victory or the visit to Downing Street is overshadowed by controversy, the Government has invited Julie Kirkbride and Don Foster to attend in their capacities as shadow spokespeople on culture, media and sport for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties respectively."

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