With a lack of respect that is quite distressing, Michael Howard has spoken brutally about the inadequacies of people in their 60s. Talking to David Frost, aged 66, last Sunday, he suggested that Ken Clarke, aged 64, is too old to become leader of the Tories. Indeed, senescence was his own excuse for quitting: "At the time of the next election, I'll be 67 or 68 and I believe that is simply too old to lead a party into government."

In which case, what else might 67 or 68 be too old for? Is it too old, for example, to make yourself useful to Alliance Unichem, or Savoy Asset Management PLC, or British American Tobacco - which are just some of the places where Clarke currently serves as a non-executive director? At a time when most of us are warned to abandon any hope of retirement, Howard's revelation of generalised incapacity, setting in at some point in the mid to late 60s, is chilling. How, given this exponential decline in our faculties, are we to work ourselves to the graveside, let alone - as I believe David Blunkett intends - excavate the grave itself before gratefully lowering ourselves in?

Howard should be more specific. Is it a mental thing, this falling off, which starts with occasional forgetfulness, and ends with not remembering how Shaun Woodward ever got to hold a safe Labour seat? Or just physical? When is the likely onset? We can take some comfort, at least, from the fact that last year, when Sir Edward Heath, aged 88, told Howard that 62 was too old to lead the Tories, Howard took absolutely no notice, and went on to scamper from door to door, as we saw recently, with all the dash and agility of a rabbit in early middle age.

But Howard's doomy line in gerontology is echoed by Michael Portillo, who has said Clarke "may be too old", and by Francis Maude, who also trusts in youth - possibly in the shape of one or other of the frecklesome public schoolboys, Cameron and Osborne - to present the electorate with a more tantalising Tory vision of the "Britain of tomorrow". Perhaps a younger leader would have a rejuvenating effect similar to Tony Blair's, when he took over the Labour party and began the transformation of our nation into a new young country, discarding, as part of the process, anyone who could remember watching the obsequies for Winston Churchill. Then again, it's possible to be too young, isn't it? Some Tory backbenchers think it might be as well to make Osborne wait until he is in long trousers. In his election address, Blair actually used his youth to explain why, like WB Yeats's monkey-gland injection, he had not been able to fix everything.

"When I stood here first, eight years ago, I was a lot younger but (sic) also a lot less experienced," he confessed. "Today as well as having, in our minds, the priorities the people want, we, I, the government has the experience and the knowledge as well as the determination and commitment to deliver them." So, if Blair - or, if he prefers, they, he, the government - was too young, by his own admission, to lead effectively at 43, and now at the age of 63, Howard is, by his own admission, past it, what is the ideal age for a leader? Say, splitting the difference, 53? Gordon Brown is 54.

But then - with the utmost respect - there are other areas in which Brown is very far from being a paragon. With his expressive contortions and sulks, for example, he does not always carry himself well in public. We should not expect perfection, but if our leaders are, in future, to be recruited from a specified age group, there seems no reason not to stipulate further minimum requirements, instead of leaving so much to chance. For instance, given what we know about the pathology of short people (terrifying) and their status in any social gathering (negligible), should there not also be a minimum height requirement, of the kind which would have prevented the rise of Stalin and Napoleon? And a further health check, to prevent a compulsive eater, or heavy drinker, or any other sort of addict being accidentally selected? Not forgetting the sort of personality assessment that would disallow another John Prescott (or at least, ensure that he was helped with anger-management).

Now that civil servants, to say nothing of all the thousands of recruits tested for the private sector, are subjected to extensive personal assessments, it may be that future prime ministers should also be asked leading questions about their personal tidiness, and screened for, say, authoritarian tendencies, a propensity to dissimulate, or any hints that they might one day undermine their own authority by promoting inadequate and discredited friends or cronies.

The cabinet could be similarly evaluated, protecting us from people who might abuse their privileges, waste time on attention-seeking projects, or embark on commissions for which they are manifestly unqualified. While no one can guarantee that subjecting Blair to psychometric testing would have predicted his switch to sofa-style management, it might, at least, have required Woodward, formerly of the Tory party and That's Life!, to demonstrate why he should be put in charge of security and policing at the Northern Ireland Office.

There are, of course, cheaper, less complicated, safeguards available. The promotion of much older MPs, ministers and party leaders would not only discourage the immature, but ensure, like the Vatican's enthusiasm for the over-80s, that none of the incumbents hung around too long. Who - for all his new-found skills as a historian, pundit, and novice pianist - does not feel that William Hague has delighted us long enough? Will Portillo ever go away? Will Ruth Kelly still be in office when I die? At 64, Clarke is just about ripe enough to take over the Tories. In fact, if he didn't have a sideline selling fags to the poor, he'd be perfect.



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