Big Ben's bongs must go on, says Prime Minister

NIcholas Cecil

Plans to silence Big Ben’s bongs for up to four years appeared to be scuppered today after Theresa May joined a revolt against the controversial move.

The Prime Minister called on Commons Speaker John Bercow to urgently review the decision.

The Commons authorities have stressed that the Great Bell, popularly called Big Ben, needed to be put out of action during extensive renovation work on health and safety grounds.

They also insisted the step was needed to protect the hearing of workers carrying out the repairs to the Elizabeth Tower.

However, faced with the growing backlash, the Commons Commission which oversees the running of the House is now expected to re-examine the plans when MPs returned to Westminster next month.

It is likely to consider whether Big Ben could continue ringing outside of working hours or whether the bell could be silenced for less than four years.

The bell, which has marked the hour with almost unbroken service for the past 157 years, is due to sound for the last time on the hour at noon next Monday until the renovation of the tower is completed in 2021.

Big Ben: The famous landmark was due to fall silent for four years (EPA)

But during a visit to Portsmouth, Mrs May said: “Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.

“And I hope that the Speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis yesterday branded stopping the chimes as “mad” and urged the estate’s authorities to “just get on” with the renovation work.

The move was also labelled “entirely bonkers” by Conservative MP James Gray who sat on the administration committee which first approved the work.

Parliamentary officials defended the plan, insisting workers’ hearing could be put at “serious risk” and warned that those using the 100 metre high scaffolding around the tower could also be startled by the 118 decibel bongs.

But MPs have asked officials to look at the cost and practical implications of ringing the Great Bell more often than the current plan to put it back into use just for special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve.

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake has contacted Ian Ailles, House of Commons director general, calling for the review of the plans to be carried out.

Mr Brake, who answers questions from MPs on behalf of the Commons Commission, said: “I have asked whether someone can do some work working out what the costings and the practicality of ringing them more frequently would be.

“It would not be possible for them to continue to be rung every 15 minutes as is currently the case, that would not be practical, but it may be perhaps practical and it may be financially viable to ring them more frequently than is currently being proposed.”

Senior MPs also claimed they had been kept in the dark about the controverial proposals.

More and more parliamentarians today spoke out against the move to turn off the bells for health and safety reasons.

Senior backbench Tory MP Nigel Evans accepted measures had to be taken to protect the hearing of workers doing the restoration work.

But he called for “imaginative, out-of-the-box ideas” to allow the bells to carry on tolling certainly at some times during the day.

“Why can’t they switch the bells back on when they stop working at 5pm or 6pm or whenever it is? Also why is it taking four years?”

He even suggested a recording of the bongs could be sounded out from Parliament’s Victoria Tower.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon said: “Great chimes of Big Ben stopped 4 years at stroke of bureaucrats pen. Wrong decision. Iconic to Parliament.”

Former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Adonis tweeted: “4 yrs to repair Big Ben?! We could have left the EU twice in that time.”