Gordon Brown is preparing to deliver a bruising snub to the Chinese government by staying away from the opening ceremony of this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.
His announcement that he will not attend came as protesters highlighting China's repression of Tibet prepared to greet the Olympic torch relay as it arrived in California having already interrupted its journey through London and Paris this week.
The Prime Minister will only be in Beijing for the closing ceremony as leader of the next Olympic host country. Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, will represent Britain at the opening in August.
Downing Street insisted it did not represent a change of plan and said Mr Brown was not boycotting the opening of the games as he had never planned to attend. It said it would be a waste of public money for the Prime Minister to attend both ceremonies and said that Beijing had been informed of the decision.
But Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, described the move as a "last-minute U-turn", accusing Mr Brown of doing "the right thing late in the day when he is forced to do so because of public opinion".
A Downing Street spokesman told Channel 4 News last night: "He won't be at the opening ceremony. He never had any intention of going – there was never an expectation that he would attend both ceremonies."
But his stance is likely to be seen differently in China, where it had been reported he would travel to the country for the start of the Games. China has already expressed its anger that he will meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, who visits Britain next month.
Two weeks ago, Mr Brown was asked if he would follow the lead of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, and stay away from the opening ceremony. He replied: "We will not be boycotting the Olympic Games."
At his Downing Street press conference 10 days ago, he argued: "I think President Sarkozy said himself he expected Britain, because we are going to host the next Olympics, to be present at the Olympic ceremonies and I will certainly be there."
Matt Whitticase, of the Free Tibet Campaign, said: "I'm delighted he is not going to go, but he must – absolutely must – say he is not going to go because of his concerns over human rights.
"It must be made clear – this is the only way the Chinese government will be put in a position where they're seen to be standing at the opening ceremony with no Gordon Brown. That will be very embarrassing."
A YouGov poll for Channel 4 News discovered 43 per cent of the public thought the Prime Minister should stay away. It also found 66 per cent believe the recent London protests had "damaged" the Chinese government. Meanwhile, in the US, the White House left the door open to avoiding the Olympics opening ceremony. The White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said: "It is extremely premature for me to say what the President's schedule is going to be."
She added: "But I would again reiterate that the President has been very clear that he believes that the right thing for him to do is to continue to press the Chinese on a range of issues, from human rights and democracy, political speech freedoms and religious tolerance, and to do that publicly and privately, before, during and after the Olympics."
In San Francisco yesterday, the torch procession avoided the kinds of clashes with protesters seen earlier in the week in London and Paris, mainly because the authorities played a cunning game of cat and mouse with thousands of demonstrators who stood futilely along the scheduled route only to discover the plans had been switched.
Instead of being carried by runners along the city waterfront, the flame was taken by bus to an intersection in the heart of the city and then run at breakneck speed towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The scheduled grand finale to the procession at the Embarcardero on San Francisco Bay never happened.
Some protesters following proceedings on television managed to find the parade and flash the occasional pro-Tibet sign, but were otherwise frustrated.
A member of the city's board of supervisors, Aaron Peskin, accused the Mayor, Gavin Newsom, of playing into Chinese hands. "He misled supporters and opponents of the run ... to please the Bush State Department and the Chinese government because of the incredible influence of money," Mr Peskin said.
On Tuesday night, a huge rally and march was staged just outside San Francisco's City Hall and ended outside the Chinese consulate a half hour's walk away. The protesters waved the Tibetan flag, sang the Tibetan national anthem, prayed, watched a Tibet freedom torch being lit – mirroring the symbolism of the Olympic flame.
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