Gordon Brown has not performed an Olympic U-turn but, thanks to his and his team's cack handedness, it looks to the world as if he has.
I am now clear that the prime minister was never planning to attend the Olympic opening ceremony. It was always his intention to go to the closing ceremony to receive the Olympic torch on behalf of London. Britain was to have been represented at the opening ceremony by the Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell.
Why do I state this so confidently? Journalists planning to travel to Beijing with the PM tell me that Downing Street told them this some weeks ago. I am not, as it happens, one of those making that trip and so, like most people, thought that the PM was planning to go to the opening ceremony whether other leaders boycotted it or not.
The problem for Team Brown is that he and they have never stated clearly and publicly their man's position. Thus they stand accused of making a U-turn in the face of public pressure when, it would appear, they have done no such thing. They have, however, been guilty - once again - of an utterly avoidable PR own goal.
Downing Street says that the PM's position was made clear at a lobby briefing on 19 March. Here's the official note of what was said:
"Asked if we now agreed with the French foreign secretary that there was now a case for not attending the Olympic opening ceremony, the PMS (prime minister's spokesman) replied that our position in relation to the Olympics had not changed, and we did not support a boycott of the Olympics.
Asked if it was still the prime minister's plan to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the PMS replied that this was correct"
At Gordon Brown's recent news conference with France's President Sarkozy the two leaders were asked
Q : "Should the leaders of major democracies like Britain and France now boycott the opening ceremony in Beijing as a result of what is going on in Tibet?"
Sarkozy : "At the time of the opening ceremony, I will have assumed the presidency of the EU, so I have to sound out and consult my fellow members to see whether or not we should boycott"
Brown : "We will not be boycotting the Olympic Games; Britain will be attending the Olympic Games ceremonies"
Note the plural – ceremonies. It is now clear what was being said however cryptically. It was far from clear, though, to those who were not in the know. Indeed, a quick cuttings search reveals that major national newspapers stated again and again in recent weeks that the PM was indeed attending the opening ceremony.
Was it a tactical decision to be cryptic? An attempt to avoid a story? An effort not to upset the Chinese? Or was it simply that Team Brown genuinely thought everyone knew? Or a mix of all the above ?
I wish I knew...