Huge crowd expected to cheer World Cup parade

Hundreds of thousands of people could converge on central London today to share in the victory parade for England's World Cup-winning rugby team.

Two open-top double-decker buses are due to carry the world champions and the Webb Ellis Cup from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in a parade that is expected to bring the centre of the capital to a standstill.

Police have little idea of how many people will gather for the celebrations, but the authorities were taken by surprise by the 8,000 supporters who turned up at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning to welcome England back from their 20-17 victory over Australia. Up to half a million people could watch the parade, their numbers swollen by Christmas shoppers and retail and office workers. Up to 1,000 police officers will be deployed for the celebrations, amid concern about the possible threat of Islamic terrorism.

Scotland Yard expects the crowds to be well behaved, but they have to guard against terrorists using the huge gathering to launch an attack. London is on its highest state of alert since the 11 September suicide hijacks in America.

The buses will leave Marble Arch at midday and travel along Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Haymarket and Pall Mall East, ending in Trafalgar Square. Oxford Street will be closed to traffic from 11.30am.

Once the England team have displayed the cup in Trafalgar Square at about 1.20pm, they will make their way to the InterContinental London hotel on Hyde Park Corner. Players will then travel to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen, followed by the politicians' big moment at Downing Street.

Tony Blair and Michael Howard continued their row yesterday about the Downing Street reception, with government and opposition leaders squabbling over who would have their photographs taken with the England players and coaching staff.

Tony Blair dismissed as "nonsense" claims that he had tried to hijack the event for the Labour Party by not issuing Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with invitations. He said that all the Tory leader, Mr Howard, had to do to get an invitation was give him a call.

"As far as I am concerned, I don't mind who comes. I am absolutely delighted to have the Conservatives there, the Liberal Democrats, whoever wants to," he said, reversing statements last week that the reception would be a purely governmental affair.

Mr Howard countered: "Call me old-fashioned if you like but I always thought that if people wanted you to come to something, they invited you. Perhaps they do things differently in Downing Street these days."

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