MPs farewell Big Ben's hourly chimes, not with a bong but a whimper | John Crace

As bell is silenced for four years of restoration, even Labour’s Steve Pound finds it hard to muster a melodromatic tear

In nomine Patris... Bong... et filii... Bong... et Spiritus Sancti... Bong. Shortly before midday, a small crowd of journalists had gathered outside the members’ entrance to the houses of parliament to observe a couple of MPs stand with heads bowed before Big Ben.

After the last rites of 12 final bongs, the bell would go quiet for four years while restoration work was done on the Elizabeth Tower.

Bong. Forget Brexit: this was the end of life as we know it. The day that democracy really died. The day England became a less green and pleasant land. The day the health and safety jobsworths got their way. In years gone by, British workers would have been only too happy to have their ears bleed on the hour every hour so that normality could prevail for the rest of the country.

Bong. The first MP to show up was Labour’s Jess Phillips along with her husband and two sons. She appeared bemused to find herself the centre of attention and was quick to point out that her appearance was entirely coincidental.

“I don’t give a toss about Big Ben,” she said. “I’m only here because my son fell over in the skate park and we want to get his knee seen to at the nurse’s station.”

Bong. Out strode Labour’s Steve Pound, one of the few MPs to fully embrace the importance of the occasion. Or to seem to do so. Pound is one of Westminster’s natural standups and it’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s being serious and when he’s taking the piss – mainly because he often doesn’t know himself. It was equally as likely that he had orchestrated the vigil as a piece of immersive theatre to tempt hardcore Conservatives into making fools of themselves as that he was particularly bothered about bell maintenance.

Bong. “It’s not just the love of tradition,” Pied-Piper Pound said, throwing himself into his role, his voice all honeyed insincerity. “We’re in danger of losing something very special ...” Yes. Like our sanity. As if on cue, Conservative Peter Bone wandered into the courtyard.

Bong. Pound looked momentarily a little disappointed at the turnout. He had hoped for more bell-ends for the end of the bell. Bone is one of the few Tories who don’t need any encouragement to behave like an extra in Little Britain, so Pound’s performance was wasted on him. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg had let him down. The Great Pretender had promised to appear but had sent his nanny instead. Still, the show had to go on and Pound was nothing if not an old pro.

Bong. “This tower rose like a phoenix from the ashes,” he continued to the handful of hacks who had gathered round him. “It represents stability and security at a difficult time in our nation’s history.”

Bong. “Not if it falls down, it doesn’t,” observed Jess Phillips’s husband. Pound wisely chose to ignore that unhelpful remark. Instead he talked lyrically about the clocks going out all over London and how it should have been possible to carry out the restoration and keep the bells ringing. Like by employing a team of builders who were already registered stone deaf and wouldn’t be affected by the noise. Just imagine how that would have looked on Westminster’s HR diversity stats.

Bong. Pound fell silent as Big Ben struck 12. Though not for long. Playing to his audience, he let his lips wobble and said, “This is too, too awful.” Shame he couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face. “Don’t forget to cry, Steve,” I said. Pound nodded his thanks, pulled a neatly folded white hankie out of his pocket and started dabbing at his eyes hopefully. If he poked them hard enough he might squeeze out some moisture.

Paul Waugh tweet

Bong. The last peel rang out and the crowd dispersed, revealing the lone figure of Conservative Matt Hancock lurking near the back. A junior minister was riches indeed. Was he there as Theresa May’s spiritual representative? After all, the prime minister had seemed far more bothered when she returned from her holidays by the national trauma of Big Ben’s bongs than Donald Trump’s moral equivalence between Nazis and nazi protesters.

“I was just passing,” Hancock said nervously. “And I’m saying nothing.” The love that dare not speak its name. Big Ben had fallen silent. Not with a bong but a whimper.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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