Back to basics in Blackpool

By Oliver Burkeman

Tim Metcalfe had never spoken in front of a large audience before when he made his way to the conference-hall podium in Blackpool on Tuesday – and had they known what was coming, one imagines, the Conservative party’s public-relations strategists might have preferred to keep things that way. Over the course of two raucously applauded minutes, Metcalfe – a party activist from Leeds – overshadowed the main speaker, Oliver Letwin. And he probably didn’t, on balance, do all that much for Letwin’s much-proclaimed platform of compassionate conservatism.

Bring back hanging, Metcalfe said. Castrate paedophiles. Make prison life harsher. And stop whingeing on in favour of “the rights of the thug”, he added, in a speech so unremittingly disciplinarian that he practically called for the reintroduction of birching. Actually, he did call for the reintroduction of birching. “Bring back birching for young tearaways that terrorise council estates and vandalise graveyards,” he said. The audience loved it, joining in energetically when he called for three cheers for Tony Martin. It was a language they understood – perhaps the only language they understand.

“The birching was the headline-grabber,” says Metcalfe, a 32-year-old internet specialist who is on a list of approved Tory candidates, waiting for a seat. What may end up being the most notable speech of the conference, he explained, had come about almost by chance. “They normally have maybe six or seven speakers before the main one, and when you turn up at conference, you can put in a request to speak. And I did, and my name came up.”

“Teenagers with 150 convictions under their belt” feature frequently in Metcalfe’s analysis of Britain’s problems. Locking people up for a very long time, “without TVs and snooker tables”, features frequently among his solutions, as does corporal punishment. But if you suggest that he is exactly the kind of swivel-eyed draconian radical the Tories have been struggling for years now to distance themselves from, he hastens to disagree.

“It’s all about a balanced approach,” he says. “If, as the ordinary man or woman in the street, you see your gravestone vandalised, you’re not going to say, ‘Let’s understand why they did that,’ – because you’re never in a million years going to desecrate anyone else’s gravestone.”

In any case, Metcalfe cannot afford to be blindsided by the stir his speech caused, because he’s thinking long-term. “Prime minister,” he says, when asked about his ultimate political ambition. “I mean, if you’re going to go for it, you might as well really go for it.”