David Cameron launches the Conservative Party's European and local election campaign last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's zombie government is out of ideas and out of steam

The government has grown in size but has seriously diminished in purpose.

The Queen's Speech on Wednesday is David Cameron's last chance to live up to his own PR hype. Instead of breaking his promises and letting people down, he has to try and show that he has the ideas and values to tackle the major long-term challenges we must face in our economy, society and politics. He has to explain how we can earn and grow our way to a prosperity that can be shared by all rather than just a few at the top. Judging by his record since 2010, I'm not holding my breath. He doesn't have the answers because he doesn't have the right values. He just doesn't get it.

I've knocked on countless doors over the last few weeks, and people's alienation from politics has never been more pronounced. People don't understand why David Cameron is on their TV saying the economy is improving when they are still struggling to make ends meet. They don't understand why George Osborne crows about unemployment statistics when their zero-hours contract won't guarantee them a basic income, give them any security, or allow them to plan their life. And they don't understand why if we are all in this together, millionaires have been given a tax cut while the rest of us pay more.

If politics has one job, it is to answer the concerns of the nation. People are clear that David Cameron's government has not done so.

Recent months have shown that this is a government that has run out of steam and run out of ideas. Ministers should be bringing forward legislation to make work pay, to reform markets so they serve consumers and to increase the supply of affordable housing - but instead a lack of ideas and action has left Parliament twiddling its thumbs.

This government is now spending less Parliamentary time on legislation than at any point during the last Labour government. In the Parliamentary session 2012-13, just a third of time in the House of Commons Chamber was spent debating government legislation. The last session of Parliament had the fewest number of government Bills compared to any other year since 1950 -  fewer than even John Major's disastrous administration. The government is bulking out this years' Queen's Speech with a record number of "carry over" bills (bills they've already published). And MPs have been given the equivalent of an extra month off each year since 2010 because the government can't come up with anything for them to debate - and because it would rather rebellious Tory MPs were not in London plotting.

David Cameron claimed he would "cut the cost of politics" but this is the biggest government since reliable records began, with 121 Ministers, 95 Special Advisers and 160 new peers since 2010. This makes the House of Lords the largest legislative assembly outside of the Chinese National People's Congress in Beijing.

The government has grown in size but has seriously diminished in purpose. I've taken to calling this a zombie parliament because I've really not seen anything like it in my 22 years in the House. We have day after day with no legislation to discuss, and a government that seems completely unprepared to take the big decisions our country needs.

If this were Labour's Queen's Speech, we know exactly what we'd do. We'd tackle unfairness in the rental market by creating new long-term predictable tenancies. We'd tackle unfairness in the energy market by freezing gas and electricity prices until 2017. We'd tackle tax unfairness by cutting tax for working people. We'd stop jobs being undercut by foreign workers by enforcing the national minimum wage. We'd give unemployed young people a job guarantee. We'd help working parents with 25 hours free childcare. We’d guarantee an appointment with a GP within 48 hours. We’d back small business by cutting business rates and reforming the banks. We wouldn't just ignore this crisis in our living standards, a Labour government would tackle it head on.

In 11 months time, the country will face a clear choice. A choice between an ineffective, out-of-ideas government that wants to just leave people to sink or swim and a Labour government that believes our economy and our politics should work for everyone and not just a few at the top.

Angela Eagle is shadow leader of the House of Commons

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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.