If everything had gone to plan, this would have been George Osborne’s first in-person conference as Conservative Party leader. David Cameron would have won the Brexit vote and stood down, as planned, at the end of his second parliamentary term. Osborne, his closest political ally, would have been elected leader in his place, and won a third term in May 2020.
But, of course, everything didn’t go to plan. Cameron’s premiership was ended mid-flight by referendum defeat. George Osborne’s standing among Tory MPs, already damaged by the political fallout from everything from cuts to tax credits, was so frail he didn’t even mount a challenge.
So far, the speeches from the main stage at this year’s party conference would have been completely out of place in that Brexit-vote era – with just one exception: the speech given by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Other than the reference to his principled commitment to Brexit (which several MPs have interpreted as a coded attack on Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who is widely believed to have privately favoured an Out vote but who backed Remain out of loyalty to David Cameron), there was nothing in Sunak’s speech that couldn’t have been delivered by George Osborne in 2017, right down to the defence of the government’s planned cuts to in-work benefits.
And in many ways that is the most intriguing thing about Sunak’s speech, and his political positioning more broadly: he is a throwback to an era of Conservative politics that came to an abrupt and unexpected end in 2016.
Does that matter? It depends on the extent to which you view the “three shocks” of the 2015-20 period in politics – the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the Brexit vote, and the hung parliament of 2017 – as the product of individual acts of political brilliance, or an expression of discontent with the political and economic decisions of the Cameron government. For some Conservatives, the difficulties of 2016 and 2017 cannot be understood as a reaction to the tactical guile of Dominic Cummings, the principled positions of Jeremy Corbyn or the ineptitude of Theresa May, but as the simple and dull result of British voters being tired with heavy cuts and sluggish wage growth. They think the most important thing that happened in the 2017-19 period was that Philip Hammond delivered a series of Budgets that were more expansive than those planned by George Osborne.
Of course, for other Conservatives, what went wrong wasn’t that the Conservatives had reached the natural limit of what they could do as far as austerity in certain areas was concerned, but that they stopped advocating for it. Sunak’s speech identifies him as part of the latter group: he has put fiscal conservativism ahead of low-tax conservativism, and rhetorically he is preparing the ground for an election battle that will look much more like that of 2015 or 2017 than of 2019. His gamble is that he won’t end up being blamed if the party receives or starts to look like it is heading back to 2015 or 2017.