Expenses chief quits . . .

. . . but will Alan Johnson pull a “David Davis” and quit too?

The Sunday papers have two interesting political "resignation" stories this morning.

The Mail on Sunday says that a senior official at the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) -- the operations director, Nigel Gooding -- has quit his post "for the sake of my health and sanity" after a series of rows with MPs over the new, stricter expenses rules.

Has the expenses scandal become the domestic equivalent of the Iraq war, the story that never goes away? This new parliament has already had the David Laws resignation, and now this. Depressing. I guess we'll have to get used to another round of hand-wringing, head-shaking and cries of: "They still don't get it!" For the sake of our collective "health and sanity", I hope not.

Then there's Alan Johnson -- one of the popular, plain-speaking and pluralist Labour MPs I'd hoped would run for the party leadership. Johnson is backing David Miliband but the Sunday Telegraph claims that the former home secretary is considering standing down from his Westminster seat and fighting a by-election on the issue of proportional representation.

Says Patrick Hennessy:

The shadow home secretary's dramatic gesture would mirror the controversial stand taken by a Tory occupant of the post, David Davis, in 2008.

Mr Davis quit the shadow cabinet and announced he would fight a by-election in his parliamentary seat of Haltemprice and Howden on a civil liberties platform.

Mr Johnson, who was the favoured candidate of many Labour MPs to replace Gordon Brown as prime minister, has always been a passionate advocate of electoral reform.

If he fought, and won, a by-election on the issue in his seat of Hull West and Hessle -- next door to Mr Davis's seat -- it would put him in prime position to play a leading role in a referendum campaign to change the way all MPs are elected.

Under coalition plans, a referendum on replacing the current "first-past-the-post" regime with the Alternative Vote system, which allows voting for more than one candidate, could be held as early as next year.

If Johnson makes this "dramatic gesture" I'd be 100 per cent behind him. AV is a poor replacement for first-past-the-post -- and I can't tell you how depressed I was to listen to the five Labour leadership candidates refuse to go beyond a commitment to AV at both the New Statesman hustings on Wednesday and the Compass hustings yesterday.

I just wish Johnson had threatened to make this move while in government. After all, if Labour had pledged to legislate for a referendum on AV+, rather than AV, it would have made a Con-Lib coalition all but impossible.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.