Theresa May with Yvette Cooper before the Queen's Speech last Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The pressure rises on Theresa May

Home Secretary accused by Labour of breaking the ministerial code and ordered to appear before select committee.

David Cameron's unusually brutal response to Michael Gove and Theresa May's briefing war - forcing Gove to apologise and May's special adviser Fiona Cunningham to resign - was a desperate attempt to limit the damage from one of the most extraordinary episodes of the coalition's time in office. Of the two ministers, it is May who has paid the biggest price. While Gove has had to issue an embarrassing but largely inconsequential apology to Cameron and to Charles Farr, the Home Office security chief he briefed against (who is currently in a relationship with Cunningham), May has suffered the permanent loss of her most loyal and trusted adviser.

This differing treatment reflects No. 10's view of the gravity of their misdemeanours. While Gove was critical of what he regards as the Home Office's lax approach to non-violent Islamist extremism at a Times editorial lunch on Monday (comments reported without attribution by the paper two days later), May took the far more dramatic step of publicly releasing her excoriating letter to the Education Secretary on Islamist infiltration of schools (tweeted at 12:24am on Wednesday morning from the Home Office account), an unprecedented act of hostility.

Reflecting this, it is the Home Secretary whom Labour is concentrating its firepower on. In a joint letter to Cameron, Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt have accused both Gove and May of breaking the ministerial code, but they focus on the latter's alleged breaches. They write:

It appears that both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary have broken the Ministerial Code in the last week. The Education Secretary has now apologised, however the Home Secretary has remained silent.

As Prime Minister it is your responsibility to enforce the Ministerial Code. Can you therefore explain whether the Home Secretary has broken the Ministerial Code or not, and what enforcement action you have taken?

Section 2.1 of the Ministerial Code says: "the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained."

The Home Secretary's letter to the Education Secretary is in response to Cabinet correspondence and circulated to the Extremism Taskforce. It was written and sent by the Home Secretary on June 3, apparently after and in response to the Home Office being made aware of the hostile briefing from the Education Secretary. It was briefed to journalists on the same day and published on the Home Office website in the early hours of 4 June. It remained on the Home Office website for 4 days.

It appears that the Home Secretary wrote this letter intending to publish it. Did she authorise the release of the letter? Is that in breach of the Ministerial Code? Given that the Home Secretary then allowed the letter to remain on the website for 4 days, is that also a breach of the Ministerial Code?

What action have you taken in response to a breach of the Ministerial Code by one of your most senior Cabinet ministers? Will the Home Secretary also be apologising or are some Ministers exempt from enforcement of the Ministerial Code?
 

Alongside this, Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, has written to May demanding "a full explanation of what has happened" and announcing that the committee "will in due course question her about these matters."

But while it is May who is under the greatest pressure, Gove faces the challenge of responding in the Commons tomorrow to Ofsted's 21 inquiries into the alleged infiltration of Birmingham schools by extremists. While the battle-hardened Education Secretary is likely to put in a typically defiant performance, the more difficult task will be reconciling his commitment to fighting Islamism with his commitment to school autonomy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.