The real winners of the Vince Cable debacle

Yep, the bankers!

I took part in a slightly bizarre but fun Today programme discussion this morning about whether or not we have a "Maoist" government. You may remember the remarks by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who told two undercover Telegraph journalists:

There is a lot of things happening. There is a kind of Maoist revolution happening in a lot of areas like the health service, local government, reform, all this kind of stuff, which is in danger of getting out of . . . We are trying to do too many things, actually.

He was also, we assume, one of the key cabinet sources for Andrew Rawnsley's column in the Obs last weekend:

I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

In fact, the truth is that we political journalists have short memories. Despite all the song and dance about Maoism, which prompted this morning's Today programme chat on Radio 4 (involving not just me, but the noted China and Chairman Mao specialist Jonathan Fenby) and led to the FT's "Mao rating" scheme, Cable actually used the Maoist tag in public more than a month ago.

From the Guardian, 12 November:

The abolition of regional development agencies by the coalition was a "little Maoist and chaotic", Business Secretary Vince Cable told a gathering in Birmingham last night.

Hmm.

Cable has a rather curious relationship with communist language, analogies and labels. As the politics lecturer Ed Rooksby points out over at Comment Is Free:

What is it about Vince Cable and communism? Barely a month seems to go by without Cable comparing others, or being compared himself, to something or someone related to it. In September, the Liberal Democrat minister was accused (implausibly) of being some sort of quasi-Marxist after making some mildly critical remarks about capitalism in a speech. In 2007, Cable made his memorable quip about Gordon Brown having undergone a "remarkable transformation . . . from Stalin to Mr Bean". While having his own Mr Bean moment, revealed this week, Cable was at it again. This time it was Mao.

Rooksby makes an important if provocative point at the end of his piece on Cable, the coalition and Chairman Mao. Like the Maoist government in China, he writes:

. . . this is, in an important sense, a class-struggle government – one acting consciously and directly on behalf of the rich. The role performed by the government in conditions of economic crisis is, all too often, to shift the costs of that crisis on to the poor and least well-off. The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it, and is setting about that task with great enthusiasm.

You might roll your eyes at the analogy, but which group of people, aside from the bosses and shareholders of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, will be rubbing their hands in glee this week at the sight of Cable's very public and humiliating defenestration? Yep, you guessed it, the bankers.

Here's the well-informed James Chapman writing in the Daily Mail:

The prospect of a crackdown on a £7bn bonus windfall for bankers is receding as a result of Vince Cable's weakened position in the cabinet.

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary had been leading demands for tough action as banks prepare to make a bumper round of payments.

Mr Cable's allies have suggested Britain should follow Ireland's lead and block bonuses at institutions part-owned by the taxpayer, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Cable built his reputation, in opposition, as the hammer of the bankers; in government for the first time in his life, he had the opportunity to help restrain the excesses, greed and irresponsible behaviour of our bailed-out financial elites. But no more. He is a diminished figure, lacking clout and credibility. George Osborne will be the man doing the deals with the bank bosses on behalf of the coalition and, as Cable admitted to the Telegraph duo:

We have a big argument going on about tax [on the bankers] and that is party political, because I am arguing with Nick Clegg for a very tough approach and our Conservative friends don't want to do that.

Osborne and his City allies might argue, in response, that the Treasury has already announced a levy on banks that will raise £2.5bn a year. But as the Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a member of the Treasury select committee, pointed out the day after the Chancellor's Spending Review on 20 October:

The government has opted to apply the levy over and above a £20bn allowance rather than using a threshold. Under a threshold, any bank with total liabilities of more than £20bn would have been taxed on all their profits, while under the plans announced today all banks regardless of their size will not be subject to the levy on their first £20bn of taxable liabilities.

A stipulation was included in today's plans that the levy will not apply to firms where 50 per cent or more of activity is defined as "non-financial". Because investment banks often have extensive and varied operations, this could allow firms to dodge the tax.

Figures obtained by Umunna through a parliamentary question in July show that the government only hopes to raise £1.15bn from the levy in 2011-2012 and £8.37bn in total between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015 – less than half the government's total cuts to welfare spending of £18bn announced in the Spending Review. As Rooksby concluded in his CiF piece:

The last government bailed out a banking system on the verge of collapse. Now this one is demanding that the rest of us pay for it . . .

Merry Christmas!

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.