Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Election 2024
20 June 2017

Vince Cable as Liberal Democrat leader would complete the revenge of the old

Britain's party leaders are becoming greyer and more left-wing.

By George Eaton

Around 2007 it appeared that British political leaders only came in one model. Tony Blair (53), David Cameron (40) and Nick Clegg (39) were all young, economically liberal and socially liberal. Grey hair as much as no hair appeared an impediment to leadership. Both Cameron and Clegg had replaced older predecessors (Michael Howard and the much-mocked Ming Campbell). The 2008 election of Barack Obama (47) only appeared to confirm the trend.

But, like much else, this assumption has been overturned. In 2015, Labour elected Jeremy Corbyn (then 66) – the oldest leader of a major party for 35 years. The following year, the Conservatives chose Theresa May (then 59), now the oldest prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. Should Vince Cable become Liberal Democrat leader (the 74-year-old entered the race today), the reversal will be complete. The average age of the three leaders would be 67 (up from 47 in 2015) – the highest since 1955. All this, with a 71-year-old in the White House.

After younger leaders disappointed their parties, perhaps it is no surprise that activists are seeking refuge in the assumed wisdom of age. And May, Corbyn and Cable are not only united in this respect. All are notably more statist than their recent predecessors. 

In contrast to David Cameron, May has spoken of “the good that government can do” and backed interventionist policies such as an energy tariff cap, increased workers’ rights and employee representation on company boards. Far more than Ed Miliband, Corbyn rejected New Labour’s deference to the market and made the case for the renationalisation of the railways, Royal Mail, the energy grid and the water industry. During the coalition years, Cable routinely challenged Nick Clegg from the left on public spending and state intervention. After the 2008 crash, and the ensuing fall in living standards, Britain’s ideological horizons have expanded.

In different ways, May, Corbyn and Cable have challenged the assumption that youth knows best (the first with mixed results). Under Clegg, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight seats, a total the 47-year-old Tim Farron only increased to 12. Corbyn, meanwhile, has succeeded where the younger Ed Miliband failed in improving Labour’s standing. Should Cable be elected (he has cited the precedent of Gladstone), and fare well, the revenge of the old will be complete.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action