Road trip 2013: Cameron slams UKIP while Osborne pushes for northern benefit cuts

Mid-term season is upon us.

David Cameron has been on the warpath today, preparing for his long-awaiting mid-term speech with Nick Clegg tomorrow. The pair will announce the Coalition's mid-term review, show off about their achievements so far, and set out some future policies (likely to be the last ones the coalition campaigns jointly on, as we move ever closer to election season).

First up is his interview with the Sunday Telegraph's Matthew Ancona. The big quote from that is that Cameron seems not to be downgrading his political ambitions in line with his poll ratings, as he tells the paper:

So, to be absolutely clear. When he tells voters at the 2015 election that, if he wins, he wants to serve a full term as prime minister, he will mean it literally (not, as Tony Blair did in 2005, to connote “a couple more years”)? “Yes. Look, I want to fight the next election, win the next election and serve – that is what I want to do. I often say to Conservatives, stop complaining about the things we haven’t done, look at the things we have done and are doing. This is an enormous reform agenda and that’s enough to keep us all busy, so that’s how it stands.”

This is said with resolve. And his aides agree afterwards that the PM’s remarks signal a fresh clarity: a determination not only that his strategy should be successful, but that he is the person to implement it. Remember: thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, this translates into Cameron remaining in No 10 (the electorate permitting) until at least May 2020. That would mean matching Blair’s period in No 10 (10 years), approaching Thatcher’s tenure as PM (11 years) and matching the span of her party leadership (15 years). Cameron’s declaration also sheds sharp new light on the ambitions of those presently touted for the succession: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, George Osborne, Grant Shapps. Clearly, if the Tories win in 2015, Cameron has no intention whatsoever of waiting a couple of years and then retiring to his Lego and board games.

Cameron also took a Mail-pleasing stance on deportation, arguing with respect to Abu Qatada that:

I’m keen to move to a policy where we deport first, and suspects can appeal later.

Since the reason why Qatada wasn't deported was that British courts thought that there was an unacceptably high risk he would face torture in Jordan, it appears Cameron is basically cool with that. It's also unclear how he plans to overcome the massive hurdle of access of justice that comes from being tortured in an overseas prison while trying to appeal to the British courts. But moving on.

This morning, the PM appeared on the Andrew Marr show, where he annoyed much of the Tory right by doubling down on his assertion that UKIP contains "odd people". In this he is entirely factually accurate, but also sending a pretty strong signal to his own party not to hope for a merger any time soon. UKIP are, in Cameron's eyes, a party firmly on the fringe of UK politics.

Cameron also began firmly laying ground for Britain losing its triple-A credit rating, arguing that the interest rate at which Britain borrows is what we should be looking at instead. That interest rate is higher than fully 10 of the twenty countries whose rates are quoted by the FT, but it remains very low. That's got little to do with Cameron's leadership and everything to do with the reverse sovereign debt crisis the world has experienced for the last few years, so he ought to be safe for some time if that does become the new benchmark for success.

And throughout today, suggestions as to what might be in tomorrows speech have been leaking out. The Sun suggests more roadbuilding, The Sunday Times picks up on the idea of a single-tier pension, and the Telegraph reports that Osborne has requested lowering benefits in the North.

Tomorrow might be an interesting day if that goes ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.