Blog: Who cares if Liz Truss changed her mind about Brexit? The public certainly don’t – iNews

There’s a lot to be said for changing your mind, particularly in politics.

In our hyper-polarised world, where tribal connections and allegiances matter more than cool assessment of the facts, changing your mind is increasingly celebrated as a noble act. Podcasts, radio programmes, blogs and books laud the “journey” that some open-minded leaders manage to take.

This is partly because it’s often not easy to do. We know from academic experiments people find admitting they’re wrong embarrassing and that it’s psychologically painful to give up your pre-existing convictions. But we also know that we often admire others when they do.

As that archetype of grown-up assessment of shifting evidence, John Maynard Keynes, said, “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?”

Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss used almost exactly the same phrasing in an interview explaining her personal switch from “useless remainer” to the favoured candidate by many arch-Brexiteers in the race to be our next PM. Her experience as foreign secretary, she says, convinced her of the opportunities available to a free Britain, and that the “portents of doom” haven’t come to fruition. She echoed similar sentiments about a “journey” when she was criticised by rival Rishi Sunak about once being a Liberal Democrat.

But there are always two stories told about switching. Some will see them as honest, painful and evidence-driven. And others will portray them as selfish, convenient and evidence-free.

And, as many have pointed out, the counterpoint to this Damascene conversion is that several of the warnings that Truss herself gave in a speech to the Food and Drink Federation in May 2016, five weeks before the referendum, have, to a large extent, come true. The food industry has been one of the hardest hit, there has been a huge increase in bureaucracy, and investment in the UK has decreased relative to countries still in the single market.

But do either of Truss’s U-turns or the possible shakiness of the rationale really matter? Almost certainly not. Truss is open to attacks on two fronts – but neither now carry much threat.

First, the contrast with Sunak’s impeccable Brexit-supporting record is negated by her endorsement from the majority of ERG (European Research Group) members. As chair Steve Baker said in a radio interview, Truss has “completed the journey that the whole nation needs to go on. She may well have been for remain, but now we all need to be reconciled to the direction of travel of the country.”

Converts are irresistible to believers in a cause, because they show the way for others.

The second front is driven by commentators asking Truss to explain what changed her mind. The implication is that this is not a sincere conversion but a calculated shift to curry favour, that casts doubt on her character more than the decision itself. But this is unlikely to gain much traction, not least because it’s difficult for her rival to exploit: to really hit home, it requires a focus on drawbacks of Brexit.

In any case, the public, and, more importantly, Conservative party members, won’t care nearly as much as commentators.

We know the general public are pretty evenly divided on whether politicians changing their mind is a good thing: Ipsos and YouGov polling consistently shows a third think it’s a sign of weakness, incompetence and lack of conviction, a third that it’s a positive signal that politicians are listening and adapting, and a third don’t really have a view.

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It depends on the circumstances, and most importantly, whether the change is in your direction. And, as the polling suggests, we shouldn’t assume people are paying that much attention. Even among Conservative supporters, only 10 per cent say they know a great deal about Liz Truss. This is put into sharper relief by the fact that five per cent of Conservatives also say they know a great deal about Stewart Lewis, a fictional candidate made up by the pollsters.

And, in the end, the majority of Conservative members seem convinced by Truss, according to YouGov polling. Not only does she have a lead in voting intentions over Sunak, she is more trusted despite the attempts to question her conviction: 63 per cent trust her to tell the truth, compared with 48 per cent trusting Sunak.

Changing your mind seems fraught, but it’s not something to be automatically lauded or criticised, and most of the time, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think.

Bobby Duffy is Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and author of Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are?

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