The Boris Show: what happens next?

A spot of travel and picking fights with Osborne will keep the London mayor amused once the Olympics are over.

Boris Johnson was hardly going to let the Olympics slip past him unexploited. As I noted in my column last week, the opportunity to use the games as a festival of self-promotion constitutes the Mayor of London's special reward for being the most electable Tory around. It is hard to imagine David Cameron basking in chants of "Dave! Dave! Dave!" at a vast Hyde Park rally. There is something about Johnson that zoinks -  so to speak - where other Conservatives don't.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has, I gather, been a source of some irritation to other politicians who are rarely sated with publicity. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has been raising hackles on Team Boris with his attempts to get in on the act. Olympics = sport = Jeremy, says the DCMS; London = Boris so back off, comes the City Hall rejoinder.

Meanwhile, provoking chatter about Boris's chances of succeeding Cameron was a poll for ConservativeHome naming him the activists' favourite. I stand by my column analysis that this is more a proxy expression of dismay and disappointment with the current leader than serious contemplation of Boris as Prime Minister. There are many obstacles to Johnson actually becoming leader (some of which I explore here; Steve Richards also picks up the theme in his Independent column today). 

Aside from the technical impediments - such as Boris not actually being an MP - there is the much more serious question of irresponsibility and pathological unseriousness. As one former Boris staffer said to me recently in a tone of weary incredulity aiming to kill off the idea of Prime Minister Johnson: "Just imagine him for a second in charge of defence."

Labour are certainly not taking the Johnson threat too seriously. The view at the top of the party is that Boris has reached his natural political altitude. One senior shadow cabinet minister told me at the time of the London mayoral election that Boris's success was an expression of the executive weakness of the post he was applying for. Voters could be relaxed about hiring a semi-comic figurehead because they fully understood that doing so had few real consequences. That would not be true in a general election where a crucial element in deciding how people vote (this shadow cabinet minister said) is "the fear factor" - what happens if this mildly ridiculous person actually wins?

Meanwhile, Boris is clearly determined to raise his candidacy beyond the novelty level. That aspiration is hardly helped by his hope, expressed to aides (as I revealed last week), of overseeing the city on a part time basis after the Olympics. But presumably he will use his free time to burnish his credentials as a serious national figure - and even an international one - capable of holding more august office. One way City Hall folk expect Boris to liven up  his job once the Olympic excitement has worn off is more foreign travel. It was felt in the first term that too much gallivanting around the globe as an "ambassador for London" would not have been received very well. One too many junkets and it might have looked as if Boris was neglecting his manor. But in the wake of the games, and the higher profile that has afforded the mayor, Boris now apparently feels liberated to go out and about drumming up investment from foreign companies and businesses. The idea is that the Magnetic Mayor's Roadshow will attract capital to the capital. He can then turn to the nation with a pitch along the lines: "Behold! London growing and replete with jobs. Witness how it has outperformed the rest of the country."

Another pursuit to pass the time productively will be picking fights with the Chancellor over funding for the capital. London as a region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and Boris intends to haggle noisily to secure, as he sees it, a bigger share of his constituents' cash. That also creates ample opportunities for the sport described by one source as "jabbing George in the ribs". It is only once the Olympics are gone that the games really begin.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has been a source of some irritation to other politicians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.