Paul Routledge

The first casualty of Britain's Balkan war was not truth, but Downing Street spin. Tony Blair invited the BBC and Sky to Chequers to film him speaking to the nation. When they got there, they found a virtual mock-up of his No 10 set. "Hey guys," he greeted them. "I thought I'd bring you down here, but I'd like you not to say that the interview is at Chequers. The trustees get upset about filming inside the house."

Stuff and nonsense. The real reason he brought down an information blockade was that he didn't want "our brave boys" taking on the Yugoslav air defences to think that their Prime Minister was lounging about in the countryside enjoying the spring sunshine. The craven television networks went along with this fiction, but Blair's cover was blown by an alert Press Association lobby correspondent, who filed so quickly that they couldn't get the gag over his head. PA finally put out a "correction" to say that the interview was not at Chequers, thereby compounding the lie.

So the next time a government minister says anything about this appalling conflict, you will know he is being absolutely frank.

War brings out the best and worst at Westminster. The debate on Nato's attack on Yugoslavia contained some of the most powerful speeches heard in the Commons for a long time, on both sides. Tony Benn rose to the occasion best, but then muffed up the opportunity for a vote. David Winnick, an unlikely warrior, and Ken Livingstone, speaking in support of the war, were also very effective. Unsurprisingly, the House cynics (a natural majority) claimed to detect a freshening of Livingstone's job application for the London mayoralty.

Alan Clark's facetious interruptions lightened the atmosphere, though they had the common sense of a military historian. When Fife's answer to Clausewitz, Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats, suggested an UN protectorate - a euphemism for invasion - Clark offered gaily: "Ah! Ground troops. HaIf a million should do it."

As a long-declared Yugoslavophile, who has actually visited most of the places on George Robertson's bombing list, I came in for plenty of stick, some of it from an unexpected quarter. Ben Bradshaw, leader of the Gay Warmongering Tendency, denounced me as a "Serb apologist", which is going a bit far. But Bradshaw's main complaint was correct. Radio 3 put me on a programme with the deputy Yugoslav ambassador, a real-life Serb apologist, Misha Gavrilovic, and Jeremy Corbyn MP. Hardly a balanced line-up, as I pointed out to Corbyn after the show.

It had the merit, however, of being an antidote to the stream of propaganda coming out of the MoD and Downing Street, carried uncritically by the press and the electronic media.

A postscript to the Joe Ashton saga. Poor Joe, outed by the Thai masseuse who says she gave the MP naked body massages with baby oil, tried some time ago to rid himself of the soubriquet as the silver fox of the PLP. Friends noticed that his hair was gradually getting darker week by week. Then something went wrong and the thatch turned purple, though some recollect that it was green. Ashton, 65, has offered to stand down from his seat at Bassetlaw at the next election. Nervous Labour chiefs do not want a by-election next door to Newark, where Fiona Jones was obliged to quit.

And another footnote, this time to the Pinochet affair. As Jack Straw ponders what to do next with the old tyrant, I miss the noisy demonstrations outside my window at Westminster. Chileans have been protesting there for months, come rain or shine, reviving the tradition of vigil that is now more or less dead in Britain. Gratifyingly, the anti-Pinochet forces showed the most staying power.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror". His biography of Peter Mandelson is available from the "NS" at the special price of £16.99 (inc p&p); his "Gordon Brown" at £12.99; or £25 for both. Ring 0800 7318496

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish