I am generally quite sympathetic to our politicians, or at least I try to be. First, because it's too easy to blame one group of people for all the world's problems, or to assume that you would behave much differently if you were in their predicament. Second, because the pol-hating game is self-destructive. The more we tar and ridicule our elected leaders, the fewer talented people will want to enter politics, the worse we'll be governed, the more we'll hate our politicians...
Politics is hard. But there are some days when I think, no, there's excuse for this. We deserve - or at least, we need - better leaders than this.
Yesterday, two incidents, both relatively trivial, brought out the bottle-thrower in me.
The first was David Cameron's appointment of an old chum and St Paul's boy to Number 10. Now, there's nothing wrong with a politician wanting a few old friends and colleagues around him; most Prime Ministers and presidents do the same (those who don't, like Margaret Thatcher or Harold Wilson, never really had close friends to begin with). But Cameron takes it to a new level. When I picture Cameron's Number 10, I see a cramped, fetid male locker room full of chaps boasting about bowling figures and attacking each other with wet towels. Unfair, I'm sure: I'm not doubting that Christopher Lockwood and Jo Johnson are committed and talented. But you might have thought there are some people of similar calibre who didn't go to St Paul's or Eton, and who aren't men. You might have thought the PM would actively seek out people who are different from him. But no. Cameron's defence of his decision is abysmal:
"I judge people by what they can do, what they can bring – by the quality of their brains and the passion in their hearts, not which school they went to."
In other words, the only people of merit went to a small number of public schools. Perhaps he should start considering where people went to school, instead of reverting to innate laziness and unexamined prejudice. A hundred historical examples and social science experiments have demonstrated that even a group of brilliant individuals will make stupid decisions when they suffer from a lack of diversity. How can Cameron not grasp this point, or the secondary one that he is sending entirely the wrong signals to an electorate that already thinks of him and his cabinet as a group of comfortably secluded toffs?
So, to the alternative Prime Minister. Yesterday Ed Miliband gave an interview to Martha Kearney on the World At One that was widely and rightly regarded as disastrous. Partly this was a question of tone. Here's Peter Kellner writing in The Times (£):
The Labour leader sounded shrill when he should have been statesmanlike, tetchy when he needed to be calm, lightweight not mature. As a result his carefully thought-out arguments will have made little or no impact.
I would agree with all that. Sometimes, you can really tell that Miliband was raised in an academic household, in which complex intellectual issues were thrashed out over Corn Flakes. At one point, he asked Kearney a question as if testing her (Kearney waited for a second before replying, coolly, like a teacher to an over-excited sixth form student, "You tell me"). At another he cried, "You don't understand, Martha". And pass the milk.
If Cameron is surrounded by an overly homogeneous clique, so is Miliband. In the latter's case, I suspect the problem isn't that they went to the same school so much as his advisers all come from a similar intellectualising milieu, in which an ability to wield airy abstractions is over-valued and the consensus is that if an interviewer or a voter isn't agreeing with you it's because they just don't understand. Perhaps we will all catch up. Perhaps not.
Then again, how clever do you have to be to see that since you are going to be asked the same question again and again, you'd better have an answer ready? Kearney asked Miliband thirteen times if he intended to borrow more, and every time he evaded the question, mumbling something about "the medium term". Kellner is actually being too kind when he refers to "carefully thought-out arguments".
Miliband and his team must know that until they have a way of dealing with this question, then everything else they have to say will be ignored. I realise it isn't easy. "We're going to borrow more in the short term so that we're borrowing less in the longer term" is a mouthful. But it, or something like it, is the least bad alternative. Until he and the other Ed agree a line, then Miliband is walking out to every crease with his bat broken.
Now this, I really don't understand. How, after three years to think about it, can you not have an answer ready?
Politics is hard. But Cameron and Miliband are making it look impossible.