Some MPs were just grinning at the delicious solemnity with which Mr Dalyell, the scourge of Nato, had laid down these bucolic credentials. Others were helpfully supplying suitable endings for his uncompleted sentence: " ... I have the best stocked bonnet in the chamber", or " ... I know more than most people about droning". Mr Cunningham chose to be placatory in his reply: "I've always known that my honourable friend packed a considerable sting, but we cannot declare a no-fly zone for bees." Mr Dalyell's face, one of the most dourly impressive pieces of statuary in Westminster, did not give a flicker.
It is clear that things must be serious though. For one thing, Mr Blair was leaving for America later in the afternoon, where he will confer with President Clinton about what the Government will probably call "low-altitude operations" and the rest of us know as "ground war". For another he did not deploy his "boom-and-bust" slogan, the first session it has missed for over three months. Instead he repeated his belief that the only way forward was not to retreat. There was a mild mutter of dissent when he insisted that without Nato intervention "ethnic cleansing would have continued", since many MPs were under the impression that that was precisely what had happened. Indeed, only minutes beforehand the Prime Minister had confirmed that ethnic cleansing had now spread to Montenegro. It wasn't the only paradox in his statement. The difficulty of mounting a ground attack against an "undegraded military machine" should not be underestimated, he told the House. This seemed odd, to say the least. For the past three weeks, senior government figures have done little else but tell us how steadily the air campaign is "degrading" Milosevic's armed forces. If they are right, then invasion has presumably been getting easier by the day. If they aren't, then what exactly has the bombing achieved?
William Hague could not ask these questions, since the back of his head is almost grazing his heels in his anxiety not to be seen as undermining the war effort. Indeed, apart from a half-hearted assault on government red tape, he chose to concentrate his heavy guns on an empty seat rather than risk provoking Mr Blair - teasing the Prime Minister about his deputy's absence. "I don't know where he is," he said, responding to a quizzical hubbub from his own side, "probably being briefed on PMQs for next Easter." Wherever he was, Mr Prescott's ears, notoriously sensitive extremities at the best of times, will have been glowing and Mr Blair's riposte is unlikely to have doused the flame. "As for deputies", he replied, "I'd rather have mine than his." I think he meant this kindly but, given that Mr Hague's deputy is Peter Lilley, it did not quite come across as the acme of collegiate loyalty. Labour MPs then took their turn at shouting "where is he", until Mr Lilley was pushed forward to take an awkward bow, like the shy boy at a school concert.
We also know that things are grave for another reason. Towards the end of Question Time, Philip Hammond invited Mr Blair to condemn Alice Mahon, for a recent visit to the Serbian capital. Mr Blair declined - pointing out that the right to hold different opinions was one of the things we were fighting for. The question was incompetent and the answer deftly exploited the fact, but when the glow of democratic piety had faded the implication of this struck home. If Mr Blair is defending the right of Labour backbenchers to embarrass the Government perhaps civilisation really is trembling on the brink.Reuse content