Gordon Brown addresses activists Glasgow in March 2014 speech ahead of September's referendum on Scottish independence. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Gordon Brown to step down as an MP at the 2015 election

Plus: more news from inside the Palace of Shame.

Maggie’s old chancellor Nigel Lawson spends much of his time lounging in the south of France when he isn’t emitting hot air in London, denying the floods were linked to climate change. Fortuitously my spy was in the plush restaurant Roux, a short stroll from parliament, when Baron Lawson of Blaby, as he has grandly become, sauntered in. Lawson was a guest at a right-whinge soirée hosted by the chain-smoking Mark Littlewood, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a sort of free-market Taliban. Lord L ordered a glass of claret and revealed a striking disdain for a parliament in which he’s a member for life. Roux, Lawson opined grandly, was the best restaurant “within walking distance of the Palace of Shame”. Unelected lawmakers claiming £300 an appearance bring down the tone of the place, eh, Nige?

Gordon Brown, whispered one of his friends, is to step down as an MP at the 2015 general election. The announcement, when it comes, will be as unexpected as the Sun backing the Tories, but Brown’s departure will still excite headlines. The former PM will have clocked up 32 years in parliament, including three as prime minister and five since he left Downing Street. Thatcher and Major both quit as MPs at the next general election. Heath stayed for the longest sulk in history. I’ve come to the conclusion that Blair made the right call by disappearing immediately. Ex-premiers get in the way. Accused of back-seat driving if they utter a single word out of place in the Commons, they’re also called lazy if they avoid making speeches.

Esther McVey, Cameron’s ruthlessly ambitious pet Scouser, was disappointed to be passed over when Dave the Sexist put Sajid Javid, a male banker, into Maria Miller’s shoes. Newspapers regularly wrongly describe her as state-educated, the FT among the guilty. Javid was, although he sends his own kids to private schools. McVey was privately educated but her alma mater, Belvedere in Liverpool, joined the state sector as an academy long after she’d left. McVey is happy to leave the mistake uncorrected to give Cameron’s toffocracy a northern rough edge.

The next chair of the Labour Party, Ucatt’s follically challenged Jim Kennedy, who will sit in the hot seat during election year, is a dead ringer for the slaphead Harry Hill. Kennedy had difficulty persuading a couple in Cheltenham that he wasn’t the TV Burp presenter. When his profile rises as the Labour chair, I wonder if Hill will be mistaken for Kennedy? Perhaps not.

MPs are unhappy at the continued Disneyfication of the Palace of Shame (copyright Lord Lawson). Tour guides are doing fewer trips for constituents to show more ticket-buying tourists where Charles I was sentenced to death. One veteran MP, 20 years in harness, grumbled he’d have to buy an umbrella to hold aloft and chaperone voters himself, discovering for the first time parts of the building off his usual route: office to chamber to bar.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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.