Parliament: The Sketch: Marshall Tito's houseguest tells of crockery shortage

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The Independent Online
IT IS A broadly dependable rule of thumb that the more questions there are answered in a session of Oral Questions, the more boring that session has been.

Yesterday, in Questions to the Secretary of State for Social Security they got through a staggering 29 of them. Granted there were some absences; neither Graham Stringer (No 26) nor Sally Keeble (No 27) answered the speaker's call to put their tabled questions - though it is entirely possible they weren't absent at all, simply comatose after a session of such stupefying dispatch.

Taking into account responses and supplementaries and general to-ing and fro-ing, the average length of speech must have been well under two minutes.

Not that longer lengths exactly guarantee thrills. During the Kosovo debate that followed, backbenchers were on a rhetorical leash - no speech was allowed to last for longer than 10 minutes, a duration which clearly strikes some MPs as hideously restrictive but which can often seem hopelessly indulgent to onlookers (and indeed, every MP not actually speaking at the time).

Robin Cook didn't get a great deal new said in his 40 minutes. He praised the armed forces, public generosity and Clare Short. He implicitly compared Slobodan Milosevic to Stalin and Hitler and warned him that he was in the frame for war crimes charges.

He confirmed the new conditions for an end to hostility and sketched in the diplomatic strategy for the rest of the war and the post-war settlement. But the Foreign Secretary did little to disperse the general fog that hovers over Nato's current attitude to engagement on the ground, or how exactly a recovered Kosovo would be made safe for returning refugees. In his mind's eye Mr Cook seems to have already moved on to rebuilding the infrastructure, long before he has finished knocking it down, let alone discovered whether the knocking down delivers the end he desires.

Michael Howard wasn't much more illuminating. Like almost everyone else in the chamber, the Tories now appear to be preparing for ground war - we no longer hear anything of the explicit opposition to ground troops once expressed by William Hague, only grave requests for "clarity" about Nato preparations for such an escalation.

Tam Dalyell has spotted this sudden vacancy in the Tory line and asked Mr Howard outright whether he was in favour of taking ground forces in. Mr Howard dodged the question with an agility that should give some comfort to Mr Cook. Then the Liberal Democrats' Menzies Campbell repeated his party's line - a little bit of "We told you so", another argument for the inescapable need for ground troops and a brief detour to defend John Simpson, by suggesting that it was high time Alastair Campbell stopped firing unattributable arrows at a man with his hands tied behind his back.

Not much hadn't been said many times before. But Gwyneth Dunwoody did get MPs to pay attention with the arresting opening sentence of her contribution: "As a 20 year old," she said, "I went with my parents to stay with Marshall Tito".

While there, the young Gwyneth had apparently quizzed the Yugoslavian generals about the recent victory of their guerrilla forces over the better equipped Germans.

Faced with tanks, she learnt, the Yugoslav partisans had simply laid dinner plates on the road. The Germans, unable to believe they were being opposed by mere crockery, climbed out of their tanks to take a closer look, at which point they were shot by men carrying ancient muzzle-loaders.

Out of all the speeches, this alone could be said to have contributed some new intelligence to the war effort. Serbia's porcelain factories will presumably be bracing themselves for air raids.