It’s ability that should count – not age or gender

The reshuffle shows that ‘middle-aged man’ is now a very vulnerable condition

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The Independent Online

What's so terrible about middle-aged men? Why have they become such a derided demographic group that no self-respecting institution can have any truck with them? On the front pages of our newspapers, it appears to be perfectly all right to talk about "culling" them, as if they were badgers. Middle-aged men - in the main - have experience, knowledge and have maybe gathered a little wisdom, but, in a world where appearances matter, the male of the species has, I'm afraid, a built-in obsolescence.

You might expect politics to be above such superficiality, but this is clearly not the case. So out of the Cabinet go a whole slew of middle-aged men, to be replaced by people with more hair and better shoes. No one knows whether they're more capable, but they are certainly women. Of course, government should be - as much as possible - representative of the population it serves, but it's demeaning to all concerned when the debate about David Cameron's reshuffled Cabinet is framed in terms of gender and not ability. Who knows where this will all end? We'll be having women bishops next. And then we'll have a World Cup final where the Prime Ministers of the winning nation, the losing finalists, and the host country are all women. Oh, we had that on Sunday.

I have never understood why command of the brief is rarely discussed when it comes to a Cabinet reshuffle. Overnight, someone who's been knee-deep in Ofsted and exam timetables becomes the single most important person in the country as far as the environment is concerned. How do we know this person knows all about renewable energy, or cares about the dwindling population of Britain's kestrels (down 61 per cent in the past 25 years, incidentally)? Ministers go from the treasury to education. This state of affairs is unlikely happen in industry. Your main experience is as a bank manager, so you're just the person we need to become headmaster of this failing comprehensive.

When it comes to know-how and worldly wisdom, however, Ken Clarke fits - or rather, squeezes - into a category all of his own. Having just marked his 74th birthday, he can't really be considered middle-aged, although he's definitely a man, or, more specifically, a bloke. His departure from government in this reshuffle removes another splodge of colour from the Westminster palette, and his interview on the "Today" programme this morning illustrated it. I absolutely love the fact that he referred to politics as a "trade" and his polite refusal to get sucked in to the nonsensical, never-ending debate about Europe was characteristically masterful. "I'll leave that to Nigel Farage," he said.

Ken was a director of The Independent while I was the paper's editor, and he was a welcome ally at board meetings, and, more pertinently, at corporate social functions. As the editor of a pro-European paper for a Eurosceptic proprietor, the discussion often got heated over the gin and tonics. I relied on Ken to help me fight my corner on this issue. He was always fair, reasonable, and receptive – and he never talked the gobbledygook of spin doctors. Such a shame he turned out to be a man.