Don’t hold your breath for EU referendum facts

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The public may struggle to get the facts before voting in the 23 June EU referendum (Source: Getty)

On the eve of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Gorbachev and Reagan, the US President sought the advice of historian Suzanne Massie, who told him of the old Russian saying: “Trust, but verify.”

This piece of wisdom, offered to a President at the height of the Cold War, is perhaps the best approach that today's voters can take ahead of the upcoming referendum on Britain's membership of the EU.

Efforts to verify information in this debate won't be easy, but a healthy scrutiny of all sides is the best way to complement what will be, for many people, an emotional decision as much as one made on the basis of supposed evidence. Indeed, the most common refrain among voters is that they don't have enough information to make an informed decision, or that they need someone to just give them the facts.

The reality is that they can't rely on the emergence of an absolute truth in this debate. As the acting director general of the British Chambers of Commerce put it yesterday, people are just going to have to examine the claims and make the most informed decision they can.

The BCC boss conceded that he had a hard time believing the claims made by either side so far, and this admirably candid position is welcome relief amid a sea of experts telling people (and businesses) how to vote.

But where does trust currently lie in this campaign? According to YouGov, it isn't with the politicians. Net trust ratings on the issue of the EU (the percentage who trust a politician minus the percentage of those who don't) is a stark reminder of just how low our political class is held.

David Cameron languishes at the bottom of the table with a net trust rating of -47. This slips to -67 among supporters of Leave. Jeremy Corbyn, still benefiting from the perception of authenticity, enjoys a relatively balmy rating of -27. But it's Boris Johnson who remains by far the country's most trusted politician on the topic, on -19.

With six weeks left of campaigning public opinion on Brexit remains relatively unchanged - despite dramatic interventions by the likes of the IMF and President Obama. This suggests, perhaps, that the public simply isn't inclined to trust what it can't verify.