British MPs to gather before Big Ben goes silent
The bongs from the bell at noon will be the last for four years while renovations take place
A tourist bus passes the Queen Elizabeth Tower, which houses the Great Clock and the ‘Big Ben’ bell, at the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Big Ben will fall silent on Monday for renovations following a backlash from Theresa May and MPs over the proposed four-year timetable for the work.
The Great Bell’s noon bongs will be the last before they are halted for maintenance and some MPs are expected to gather outside the Palace of Westminster to witness the event.
Last week, parliament said it would review the plans to silence the chimes for four years after the prime minister joined an MPs’ outcry against the move.
One of those calling for a rethink to stop Big Ben being silenced for the longest period in its 157-year history, Labour MP Stephen Pound, said he hoped at least 20 “like-minded traditionalists” would gather to witness the halting of the bongs.
The House of Commons Commission, which is responsible for the Palace’s maintenance, is also encouraging people to be present for the final chimes before repairs.
Ealing North MP Mr Pound said: “There’s going to be a small group of us standing there with bowed heads in the courtyard.”
Asked if he was joking, Mr Pound replied: “No, of course I’m not, of course we’re going to be there — a group of like-minded traditionalists.”
He went on: “We’re going to be gathering outside the members’ entrance, gazing up at this noble, glorious edifice, listening to the sounds rolling across Westminster, summoning true democrats to the Palace of Westminster.
“We’ll be stood down there with heads bowed but hope in our hearts.”
Tory MP Conor Burns told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “I think when you see the footage tomorrow of our colleagues who gather at the foot of Big Ben you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them.”
The Commission, which is made up of MPs, officials, lay members, and chaired by commons speaker John Bercow, will now review the timescale for repairs.
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who answers his colleagues’ questions on the Commission’s behalf, said one concession could be allowing Big Ben to chime on more special occasions.
It comes after a trio of Eurosceptic Tory MPs called for Big Ben to bong Britain out of the European Union on Brexit day, expected on March 29th, 2019.
Plans were already in place for the bell to chime on New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day.
Mr Brake said: “The House of Commons Commission has agreed to look at the issue when we’re back, and what I take that to mean is look at whether there is perhaps more scope for the bells to be rung on other ad hoc occasions.”
He signalled it could be difficult to get Big Ben bonging sooner than 2021 as the clock that drives the bell is being dismantled, overhauled and tested, which will take at least two years.
“That is a major obstacle in the way of striking it much more frequently and for a long period of time,” he said.
The 13.7-tonne Great Bell was last stopped for maintenance in 2007 and before that was halted for two years in 1983 for refurbishment, but has been stopped on a number of other occasions since it first sounded in 1859.
Parliamentary officials have insisted workers’ hearing would be put at “serious risk” if the bell continued chiming.
They warned that those using the 100-metre-high scaffolding around the tower could also be startled by the 118-decibel bongs.
They have dismissed suggestions the chimes could be restored during the hours that work is not being carried out, as the process takes about half a day to complete.
The renovation includes the installation of a lift and repairs to the clock’s hands, mechanism and pendulum.
It was expected to cost £29 million but MPs have raised concerns that the bill could soar to £60 million.
A commons’ spokeswoman said: “As we are currently in a procurement process we are unable to comment on projected budget estimates at this stage.
“We expect to make an announcement regarding the contract in the autumn.”