PMQs review: Cameron tries to blame Labour for the living standards crisis

Rather than following Osborne and denying that living standards are falling, Cameron sought to hold the last Labour government responsible.

George Osborne's recent response to claims of a "cost-of-living crisis" by Labour has been to deny that there is one. In his Autumn Statement last week, the Chancellor boasted that, on his preferred measure, living standards were rising. He was duly rebuked by the IFS, which said that Osborne's metric "should certainly not be used in isolation" and confirmed that real incomes had fallen by around £1,600 since May 2010.

When Ed Miliband made this point to David Cameron at today's PMQs, Cameron's response was striking. Rather than quibbling with the figures, he conceded that "household incomes" had fallen but argued that this was not surprising after "the biggest recession in 100 years". In other words: blame Labour. He declared of Miliband: "His entire approach seems to be 'we made this almighty mess, why are they taking so long to clear it up'– well, we are clearing it up!" But while this line might have been effective in 2010, it is likely to be less so after three and a half years of the coalition (as Miliband noted). Conversely, blaming the living standards crisis on the last government, rather than denying it altogether, is undoubtedly a better approach for Cameron (whose biggest weakness is being seen as "out-of-touch" by voters) to take.

Miliband went on to press Cameron on his hint, in an interview with the Spectator, that the top rate of tax could be reduced from 45p to 40p under a Conservative majority government. The PM sharply replied that the top rate was still higher than in any year of the last Labour government but notably refused to deny that he hopes to cut it.  The possibility of Labour going into the next election proposing to reintroduce the 50p rate, while the Tories plan to reduce it to 40p, shows how much ideological ground is opening up between the two parites.

In response to Miliband's earlier questions on MPs' pay, ahead of IPSA's expected recommendation of an 11% rise tomorrow, Cameron went significantly further than before and said that unless ISPSA "thinks again", he "wouldn't rule anything out". When asked after the session whether this meant he would be prepared to scrap the body and hand control of MPs' pay back to parliament, the PM's spokesman said: "You've got his words. He's ruling nothing out." After being caught flat-footed by Miliband earlier this week (who called for cross-party talks on the issue), it now seems that Cameron will find some way to ensure the rise does not go through.

David Cameron makes his way to Downing Street from the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is 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.