PMQs sketch: Angela Merkel's bazookas

After a month without, PMQs returns with LOLs, nurses and ... the economy.

It was when Sir Bufton Tufton rose and asked about Angela Merkel and her bazookas that you wondered if the future of the country really was in safe hands.

Some may point out that Sir B is a fictional character but that only makes it even harder to explain away Sir Peter Hannay Bailey Tapsell, Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle.

Sir Peter, who doubles as Father of the House of Commons, is not apparently fictional but makes a good stab at it at every opportunity he gets.

And one such opportunity came earlier today when he found himself at Prime Ministers Questions with a bit of spare time on his hands.

PMQs returned to the parliamentary timetable today after an absence of almost a month to give MPs a bit of a break after they had a bit of a break for Easter six weeks ago and before they go off for a bit of a break for Whitsun in eight day's time.

Since they last got together the government has re-launched itself at least two more times, growth forecasts have again been down-graded, Tories and Lib Dems massacred in local elections and some of the Prime Minister's best mates sent up in front of the Leveson Inquiry.

With Dave himself due in the same dock soon, Labour with a double-digit lead in the polls and even Ed Miliband less nerdy than ever, the stage was set for a scintillating - if one-side - return to the fray.

Indeed the PM displayed a sickly pallor, if such a thing is possible beneath the expensive tan of someone who travels abroad as often as possible, as he arrived for the contest. His nervous demeanour was only matched by that of his Chancellor George Osborne, who clearly expected a kicking himself; but neither could match the appearance of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who looked as if tears were but one further slight snub away.

Time off usually imbues PMQs with that back-to-school excitement so beloved of many MPs but a few days of debates on the Queen's Speech seemed to have taken their toll and even the usual suspects took time to open their insults bags.

Having been roundly drubbed by Ed M at all appearances at the Despatch Box in recent months, Dave has been told by his advisors that he must get a grip on his temper and his tantrums.

And arriving with welcome news on the unemployment front he seemed in control as he batted away the Labour leader's early insults which themselves appeared to have been on holiday. But breeding will out and after a few fumbles Ed managed to re-locate the button which turns Dave into his alter-ego Harry Flashman and normal service was resumed.

Having dropped in references to Leveson and last week's exposure of his LOL texting tendencies by Rebekah Brooks (which Dave was at least  prepared for), Ed turned the screw.

Energetically aided and abetted by his own in-house bruiser Ed Balls, he moved on to the economy, dropped in the nurses, asked what the Prime Minister was on, and told him to calm down.

To be fair, Dave tried his best but you could see he will need a few more hours on the couch. Snacking on the PM has been a regular hors d'oeuvres on the Commons lunch menu for Labour in recent months. But it's also been a hidden pleasure for his Cabinet Ministers as well; happy to see him getting a slice of what he serves up to them regularly.

But most of the infamous faces were notable by their absence today - although reports were coming in of Home Secretary Theresa May taking serious abuse from the Police Federation, and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had only managed to make his way to the end of the Front Bench.

With a re-shuffle now apparently imminent could it be that out-of-sight, out-of-mind may be the approach being taken by those on whose feet, if not careers, the Prime Minister has to trod as he makes his usually baleful exit from the Chamber.

All of which brings us untidily back to Sir Bufton. Or at least his presence on earth, Sir Peter, and his question about the German Chancellor and her bazookas.

Sir Peter, who has not been bothered by the the demands of high political office in his fifty-plus years as an MP, often makes interventions which soar above the heads of most of those present, and his latest was no exception.

The Prime Minister, noting the appearance of Angela Merkel amongst the words, chose to answer a question about Greece . . .

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.