Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband calls Cameron's bluff on TV debates

Labour leader appoints negotiating team and urges the PM to stop "dragging his feet" and sign up to three debates.

With just over a year to go until the general election, the issue of the leaders' TV debates remains unresolved. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ready to sign up to a repeat of the "333" format (three debates between three leaders over three weeks) but the Tories are proving to be a stumbling block.

David Cameron, who has complained that the last set of debates "sucked the life" out of the 2010 campaign, has postponed all negotiations on the issue until after the party conference season. The Tories, many of whom wrongly blame the debates for their failure to win a majority at the last election, have long briefed that they would like the debates to be limited to one head-to-head contest between Miliband and Cameron (possibly before the campaign proper begins) or not to take place at all.

Now, Miliband has called Cameron's bluff. In an article for the new issue of the Radio Times, he writes:

It would be extraordinary if any political party tried to argue that cancelling TV debates would serve the interests of democracy. And David Cameron has been very careful, at least in his public utterances, not to do so. But no one should doubt that he is the single biggest obstacle to getting TV debates on at the next election.

He adds:

Mr Cameron wonders aloud if there were not too many debates last time. Whether they were held at the right time, or dominated the campaign too much. There have been reports that he wants to limit the number of debates to one – or none. It is a pity that the Conservatives will not even sit down to begin negotiations until later this year – when it will be harder to secure an agreement – and have stalled at every opportunity they have been given to do so.

I can only assume that Mr Cameron wants his party’s deep pockets to be used for maximum advantage and that perceived political self-interest lies behind his party’s reluctance to get these debates on.

But no one should want the outcome of the next election distorted by the number of direct mailshots and billboard posters a party can buy. And, while TV debates will not level the playing field on their own, they can help enable people to make better-informed choices when they cast their votes.

While conventional wisdom has it that Cameron would come out top in the debates (owing to his superior personal ratings), Labour strategists regard them as a significant opportunity for Miliband. They view the debates as a chance to bypass a largely hostile press and speak directly to voters and to provoke the PM into one of his unattractive "Flashman" rages. As Labour figures rightly note, as often as not, Miliband gets the better of Cameron at PMQs. With the Tories certain to outspend Labour, the debates are also a chance to reach millions of voters for free.

To this end, Labour has appointed party vice chair Michael Dugher and Miliband's director of strategy Greg Beales to lead negotiations with the broadcasters.

In a euphemistic reference to Nigel Farage, Miliband writes that the TV companies will "ultimately determine who is invited", but adds: "because I am not going to give the Conservatives the excuse to walk off the pitch by claiming we have moved the goalposts, the starting point for negotiations should be the agreement Mr Cameron signed up to four years ago: three debates between the three main party leaders over three weeks of the campaign. With the election just a year away, it is time Mr Cameron stopped dragging his feet and showed he is willing to debate the future of our country by allowing the negotiations to begin."

The biggest challenge now for Labour, as one senior source puts it, "is to avoid him [Cameron] getting out of it."

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.