In possibly his most famous Sherlock Holmes short story, Silver Blaze, Conan Doyle introduced the idea of the “negative fact”: Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes: “That was the curious incident.” Holmes drew a conclusion from an expected fact (the dog barking) that did not occur.
On Tuesday 29 January, the Commons held a series of big votes on Brexit. Probably the most important was Yvette Cooper’s amendment creating procedures to keep Britain in the EU beyond 29 March in the event that no deal is reached by the end of the month. Corbyn’s office had come out in support of this, albeit very late in the day. Fourteen Labour MPs defied the Labour whip and voted with the Tories, and a series of shadow ministers went missing for the crucial vote. An amendment pushing what is sometimes charitably referred to as Labour’s Brexit “policy” was then roundly defeated, before May’s plan for reneging on her agreement on the Irish backstop was passed – with support from seven Labour MPs.
Corbyn’s office denied giving MPs from Leave seats a “nod or a wink” that it was OK to rebel, but also made clear that shadow ministers who helped save Theresa May’s plan will not be sacked. Big news, you’d think — especially for the Morning Star, a publication that has carried repeated editorials and articles backing a no-deal Brexit, claiming that EU membership would be the major obstacle to Corbyn implementing his policies, accusing May of secretly plotting to derail Brexit, denouncing the nefarious schemes of Brussels bureaucrats, and warning of sinister “subterranean channels of communication between elements in Labour and the EU powers that be.” Indeed, on the day of the votes, the Morning Star carried a lengthy report of the Communist Party’s call for “a People’s Brexit” and a rambling editorial claiming that “Brazil and Russia, India, China and South Africa, find their individual and collective interests are best served by a more equal trading relationship with developed capitalist countries than one constrained by EU rules.”
The following day (Wednesday 30 January) I was looking forward to reading what the Morning Star would have to say about the Parliamentary outcome. Sadly, it had gone to press before the votes. That day’s editorial was headed “Parliament’s paralysis on Brexit must be broken from without” and warned Labour against ruling out no-deal or supporting an extension to Article 50 (i.e. the Cooper amendment). That was to be the last editorial comment we’d see that week (or, indeed, up to the day I am writing, 4 February). Thursday’s Morning Star came and went with no comment. And Friday’s. And Saturday’s. And Monday’s. Can it be that the editorial team simply can’t work out whether or not to applaud the step towards no deal and MPs “standing up to” Brussels? Or is it just that the Labour “rebels” included that old Morning Star favourite Dennis Skinner, and they’re not going to criticise him, whatever he does?
Then there’s the suggestion (raised by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush as long ago as October last year) that close Morning Star associate Andrew Murray – who works part-time as Len McCluskey’s chief of staff at Unite and part-time in Corbyn’s office – argued at a Team Corbyn strategy meeting that the Labour Party should vote for Theresa May’s deal.
Perhaps the Morning Star realises that in the end Corbyn is going to upset someone: the socalled “constructive ambiguity” of promising to deliver Brexit while not completely ruling out a second referendum to reverse it cannot hold forever. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Given that the paper is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party of Britain, it’s worth noting the CPB’s policy on Brexit (as outlined in the paper on 28 January):
“The ‘pro-EU Tory minority regime’ and the EU Commission could not be trusted to reach any withdrawal agreement that did not serve the interests of big business and the capitalist class ...
“‘Locking Britain into the EU Customs Union would make any such agreement even worse’, Robert Griffiths explained, ‘because it would outlaw import regulation to protect strategic industries such as steel, while also impeding a mutually beneficial fair trade policy with developing countries’ ... “The CP executive called for a ‘People’s Brexit’ to leave the EU, its Single Market [and] Customs Union.”
As that policy is in direct contradiction to Labour’s call for a new, permanent customs union and the “closest possible alignment” with the single market, maybe the Morning Star’s editorial team decided their best bet was to say... nothing. As Holmes would say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”