Parliament: The Sketch: Brigadier Blair deals with the barrack- room lawyers

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN tell things are serious when Paddy Ashdown gets up and nobody groans. Yesterday the Liberal Democrats' leader rose to the kind of respectful silence which has long been just a wistful memory for him. That moment of restraint was symptomatic of a House in muted and reflective mood.

It wasn't solemnity exactly, more a kind of battle-weariness - the elation of enlistment and resistance having passed and MPs now settling in for the long slog. There was even something rather desultory about the interventions from Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell - indignation by numbers rather than the volatile flare of last week - though Tam did come up with an unexpected final flanking attack in a point of order, asking the Prime Minister to reconsider some remarks about the reliability of reports from Belgrade- based reporters. First Tony Blair bombs our former wartime allies, then he insults John Simpson. Is there nothing he won't stoop to?

The Prime Minister himself gave a reasonably convincing performance of command - both of the war effort and himself. He still doesn't care much for contradiction, however admirably democratic it may be, but apart from the odd flutter of exasperation, he answers queries more in sorrow than in anger, as though the questioner is a particularly dim-witted pupil at one of David Blunkett's remedial summer schools. "Do I really have to go over all this again"? his tone implies, as he insists that President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing was already underway before a single Nato bomb was dropped.

The more troublesome pupils don't always take this quietly. When Mr Blair claimed that, as a result of Nato's action, the pace of ethnic cleansing had "significantly diminished" there were mutters of dissent from the Tory back row and one cry of "Rubbish!", but the Prime Minister wasn't to be diverted. "We now know that Belgrade was making detailed plans for ethnic cleansing as early as February", he said, though he didn't explain how we knew. Labour backbenchers hear-heared the ethical crescendos in his speech with a quiet, dutiful murmur, prepared to do their homework but not to be wildly enthusiastic about it.

There was a sudden indignant moo when Mr Dalyell ventured a general slur against the "ethnic Albanians", noting that Germany's Federal Police had claimed that the Kosovo Liberation Army was a largely drug-financed operation.

MPs clearly took the view that Mr Dalyell's remarks were racist and they were almost as indignant when Alan Clark rose to alert Mr Blair to the ironies of waging an air war against Serbia on the anniversary of Hitler's terror raids on Belgrade. He was "associating this house and this country with the sustained bombardment of a brave and Christian people".

Mr CLark's implicit comparison between Mr Blair and the leader of the Third Reich provoked some dissent but nothing like as much as that blanket approval for the Serbs did. This was, I suppose, intellectually consistent: a prejudice in favour of an entire people is no less a prejudice than one against - but it was difficult to escape the feeling that it was the praise rather than the generalisation that had appalled Mr Clark's colleagues.

In one of his better moments, Mr Blair reminded the House that the question of nationality was irrelevant anyway, that a common identity should pre- empt such simplistic categorisations.

"They are human beings at risk," he said simply of the Kosovo refugees. But if he hoped to bring Mr Clark on side, I suspect he was invoking the wrong species altogether. The only chance of doing that would be to gather information on the number of Albanian donkeys injured by reckless Serb militiamen shooting at their riders.