Q. When is a boycott not a boycott?

A. When PM says he won't go to the Olympic ceremony
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Indy Politics

Once it was said that Gordon Brown was hooked on Prudence but, since he moved into 10 Downing Street, it seems that Dither is the love of his life. That was the impression left by the strange confusion over whether he had changed his mind about attending the opening of the Beijing Olympics.

The Prime Minister's position, as summed up by his aides yesterday, contains a series of negatives – he will not be at the opening ceremony, he never intended to be, the Chinese did not expect him to be there for both the start and the finish of the games, he is not boycotting the Olympics, and other people have not been listening properly to what he and his aides have said.

Mr Brown will go to the closing ceremony for the ceremonial handover, because Britain is hosting the next Olympics, and the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, will head the British delegation at the opening on 8 August.

The mix-up, which has reinforced the reputation for indecision that has dogged Gordon Brown for the past six months, produced a scathing comment from the Tory leader, David Cameron, that "if dithering was an Olympic sport, he would have a gold medal".

But if there was one issue on which Mr Brown seemed clear up to now, it was that he would be at the Olympics despite calls for a boycott. When he was in China on 18 January, Mr Brown said: "I will most certainly come to the Olympic Games if I'm invited and the reason I want to come is to learn from what I know will be the great success of China so we can follow you in London in 2012."

The formal invitation to Gordon and Sarah Brown was announced that day. Xinhua, the official Chinese News Agency, reported several times that he would be at the opening ceremony.

Mr Brown seemed to confirm that at his joint press conference with Nicolas Sarkozy, during the French President's state visit last month, when he said: "We will not be boycotting the Olympic Games; Britain will be attending the Olympic Games ceremonies," though critics allege that the use of "Britain", as opposed to "I", calculatedly enabled Brown wriggle-room.

Last week, standing alongside Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, he added: "The Dalai Lama, who is at the centre of some of this controversy, is saying very clearly that he does not want a boycott of the Olympics. And I think there is a general view that a boycott of the Olympics would not assist this current situation."

In Mr Brown's defence, he never actually specified whether he was talking about going to the start or the finish of the Olympics. His exasperated aides are now saying journalists should have listened with more care. When David Miliband was at a meeting of EU foreign ministers last month, a journalist from Agence France Presse reported him as saying that Mr Brown would be at the closing ceremony while "a sports minister" would be there for the opening, but other agencies, including Xinhua, reported that he had said Mr Brown be there for the opening.

When the Prime Minister's spokesman gave a briefing on 26 March, he was asked "if it was still the Prime Minister's plan to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics," and replied that "this was correct".

Before he entered No 10, Gordon Brown was known to admirers as the Iron Chancellor, and to detractors as a Stalinist bully. Neither description suggested that he was bad at making up his mind. But his reputation for decisiveness nosedived last October when he delayed announcing that there would be no general election that year, making it look as if the Conservative Party conference had finally forced him to a decision.

He suffered another public relations disaster in December, when he had to decide between appearing before a Commons committee, or attending the formal signing of the Lisbon Treaty, which has been a huge source of controversy at home. In the end, he turned up in Lisbon later than other leaders, signed the treaty, but missed the formal signing ceremony. Mr Brown also seemed reluctant to meet the Dalai Lama as the Olympic torch ceremony drew nearer, in case he offended the Chinese, but eventually agreed.

Mr Cameron said: "The way he has handled this decision is extraordinary. He has the Olympic torch in Downing Street but won't touch it. He goes to the Lisbon summit, turns up late but does sign the treaty.

"I think it's right to go to the Olympics. Whether that is going to the opening or closing ceremonies doesn't matter much to me, it's the manner in which all this is done. People around the world must be scratching their heads thinking 'what on earth does the British Prime Minister think?'"

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