No, Jeremy Corbyn is not too old to be prime minister – here's why

Corbyn seems remarkably healthy. He’s virtually a vegan, he hardly drinks, he never smokes, he walks and cycles. As he told The Independent recently, he attributes his energy to his daily porridge. 

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

British-American politics has fallen victim to the cult of old age. Donald Trump, 71; Hillary Clinton, 70; Vince Cable, 74. Jeremy Corbyn is a bit of a youngster at just 68. Theresa May, aged 61, is the only leftover from the previous era of hero-worshipping the gilded youth.

One of the by-products of Trump’s controversial unconventionality was that his age simply wasn’t an issue in the presidential election. Nobody was very interested, when he was inaugurated in front of vast crowds, the hugest ever seen, that he was the oldest person ever to assume the office of President.

Jeremy Corbyn is an unconventional candidate too, but, unlike Trump, his age is part of his appeal. He has been around a long time, and he has been resolutely consistent all that time, through all the years in which his views were unfashionable, marginalised and ridiculed. So it is not perhaps a surprise that his age is brought up by his critics.

If Corbyn became prime minister at the next general election in 2022, he would be 72. He would be the oldest prime minister on taking office, even older than Lord Palmerston, who was 70 in 1855. There have been older prime ministers. Gladstone was 84 by the end of his fourth ministry. Churchill was 80 at the end of his second term.

Actuarially, politicians this old are more likely to suffer some loss of faculties, or to be ill, or to die. Churchill was “gloriously unfit for office” by the end of his time in it, according to Roy Jenkins, one of his biographers.

But these are probabilities, not automatic disqualifications. Corbyn seems remarkably healthy. He’s virtually a vegan, he hardly drinks, he never smokes, he walks and cycles. As he told The Independent recently, he attributes his energy to his daily porridge.

Psychologically, he has been transformed by the election last year. Before it his body language was closed, defensive and unhappy. Since he won 40 per cent of the vote and deprived the Conservatives of a majority, he strolls around the Palace of Westminster with his shoulders back, arms open and a permanent smile on his face. He loves campaigning and draws strength from it. He would enjoy the next election campaign and he would be energised by it.

Being in government would be another matter, of course. The burden of decisions would weigh on him, as he would quickly discover that sometimes his principles are not compatible either with each other or with economic realities.

That is why, perhaps, his opponents, including as we report today some in his own shadow cabinet, point out that he would be putting himself forward to lead a Labour government for five years, which would take him to 2027. He would then be nearly 78, and 77 is the same age as Ronald Reagan, the oldest US President so far while in office, at the end of his two terms. Reagan was only diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years after he left office, but his critics thought he was losing his capacity while he was still in the White House. (Although, as with Trump, and with George W Bush, opposition to Reagan was so partisan that he was widely derided as stupid or incapable from the start).

It would be wrong to put an arbitrary age limit on prime ministerial office-holders, however. No one would set it as low as 60, but Harold Wilson, who stood down voluntarily when he turned 60, was widely thought to be aware that he was beginning to suffer the early effects of dementia.

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Paradoxically, Corbyn’s health matters more than it might because the revolution he and his supporters have wrought in the Labour Party depends so much on him personally. It is his unique personality, never seeking high office, fighting losing causes for decades with no prospect of power, that enables him to hold together the coalition that did so well in June 2017.

That is why all the fuss about rules changes to allow a “left-wing” candidate to succeed him is irrelevant. Even if another Core Group Corbynite, such as Rebecca Long-Bailey or Laura Pidcock (or even John McDonnell, 66), did stand for the leadership, I think Labour members would elect Emily Thornberry or Angela Rayner – neither of them pure Corbynites – instead. The Corbyn revolution depends on Corbyn carrying on, and all the signs are that he is up for that fight.

If people don’t want Corbyn to be prime minister, they need to fight his ideas, rather than complaining that he is too old for the job.

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