Rice arrives in UK to a reception as cool as the weather

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Indy Politics

It was to have been Jack Straw's repayment for the hospitality that the Foreign Secretary was afforded in Condoleezza Rice's native Alabama last year: a two-day whistlestop tour introducing the US Secretary of State to the "real" Britain of Blackburn and Liverpool.

But Ms Rice's trip to north-west England reached the realms of fiasco yesterday when a mosque withdrew its invitation to her, a headteacher fielded complaints about her visit to his school and anti-war protesters geared up for hostilities.

In Liverpool, a local newspaper columnist likened the visit to one by the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the 1930s, and the Philharmonic Hall scoured its C-list of possible compères for a gala evening in her honour, following refusals by the poet Roger McGough and the actress Cathy Tyson.

The response to the visit in Mr Straw's Blackburn constituency had been relatively positive before the Masjide Al Hidayah mosque, in the heart of the Muslim district,withdrew its invitation. Ibrahim Master, a member of the mosque's governing committee, said there were safety concerns over plans by Muslims to protest in the building beforehand.

"The visit wasn't cancelled because we don't like Condoleezza Rice," he insisted.

A committee member said the committee decided initially to accept Mr Straw's request but had been forced to reverse its decision when the level of opposition became clear. "The young members of the mosque are more politicised. They took a stand and the committee had to accept that they should have consulted members first," he said.

Some of the mosque's 100 members revealed that the mosque committee had decided at the weekend to accept Mr Straw's request to visit before consulting them and had been forced to reverse their decision at a meeting on Wednesday night.

Ms Rice's visit this morning to the multiracial Pleckgate High School in Blackburn remains on, despite fierce opposition from Muslim parents who complained that the headteacher, Robin Campbell, had failed to consult them.

"At the end of the day, we are responding to a request from our MP, who is Jack Straw, to host a foreign dignitary," Mr Campbell said. "We are celebrating the achievements of [the] school."

In Liverpool, workers have erected security barriers near the Philharmonic Hall where Ms Rice can expect to run a gauntlet of opposition at 6.30pm today.

The leader of Liverpool's Liberal Democrats, Warren Bradley, will hand her a letter of protest when she arrives. After an afternoon at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts ­ Ms Rice will hear a concert by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and a performance of John Lennon's anti-war anthem "Imagine".

After dodging the protesters, Ms Rice will first be shown work on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, being developed for the US air force by BAE Systems in Lancashire. Following her school visit, she will attend Ewood Park, the home of Mr Straw's beloved Blackburn Rovers, to deliver the inaugural BBC/Chatham House lecture on international affairs, then head to Liverpool.