Is Jeremy Corbyn too old and frail to be prime minister? That was the thrust of a splash in the Times the other day. Unnamed top civil servants claimed the Labour leader was not up to the job “physically or mentally” and that he was “losing his memory”.
This made me wonder not about politics, as my mind is scorched from too much fretting about that, but about age.
To mention politics just the once on this occasion, the headline in Sunday’s Observer suggested age wasn’t the problem, just the man himself: “MPs to Corbyn – get a grip or lose election.”
Deciding what age is too old is always tricky. One of my brothers, who at 60 is two-and-half years younger than me, told our mother Margaret (that 87-year-old girl about town) that I was too old to be playing squash. Yet my Tuesday opponent is five years older than me and only the other day he played a man aged 82. Time yet to continue sports inappropriate to my age.
With squash it’s not age that worries me so much as lack of ability. Perhaps that is what those MPs urging Corbyn to get a grip are concerned about: ability, not age.
The Times is habitually unfriendly to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, so such a story is not surprising. Corbyn himself was affronted, as he had every right to be. He looks fit for a 70-year-old. He cycles, works on his allotment and likes to run. He also doesn’t drink alcohol or eat meat and puts his energy down to porridge for breakfast. It’s possible he has done that for ever. He’s not a man to change his mind or his behaviour in a hurry.
Unlike the Labour leader, I do eat meat sometimes and like a drink at the weekends. But I swear by porridge, do a bit of running and cycling, and occasionally walk down the long garden to pick a vegetable. And just for variety, I play badminton badly once or twice a week, too.
If there is an optimum age to be prime minister, both Boris Johnson (55) and Jeremy Hunt (52) are in the normally acceptable bracket. For age, if nothing else.
A list of prime ministers by the age they were on assuming power reveals the 40s and 50s to be common. Margaret Thatcher was 53 when she annoyed her way into Downing Street in May 1979. John Major was 47, Tony Blair 43, Gordon Brown 56, David Cameron 43 and Theresa May, 59.
Over in the US, Donald Trump is 73 (although his hair may be younger). His would-be opponent, Joe Biden, is 76 and looked and sounded his age during the first Democratic hustings last week.
To say a man looks and sounds his age is unkind. I wouldn’t be happy if someone said that about me. But sometimes we do. If not today then tomorrow, or in a year or two. Trump seems like an old president and Biden is three years older and carries the air of a faded actor who doesn’t remember his lines so well these days.
Robert Walpole, who is generally regarded as Britain’s first prime minister, was 44 when he took office in 1721. William Pitt the Younger was 24 when he became prime minister. And no doubt people went about muttering: “Prime ministers these days just look younger and younger.”
Is Jeremy Corbyn too old to move into Number 10? It’s a tough job and no sensible 70-year-old would want to be prime minister. Then again, no one should be ruled out by age alone. Trying to pin down what age is too old leaves you pin-pricked and bruised.
Incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is variously now described as being too old and frail to be prime minister – or, according to assorted Tories, a socialist menace bogeyman whose imminent rise to power poses a huge threat to Britain.
Not sure he can be both of those at the same time.