Labour isn't the only party with a core voter problem

Once again, a few Labour grandees are raising the alarm about the core voters. John Prescott, Robin Cook and Peter Hain fear that Mr Blair's unrepentant middle-class ethos has alienated the grass-roots proletarian Labour support. The Fettes-educated lawyer who goes in for secret vote-rigging to preserve grammar schools, prefers ciabatta to chips and pays tribute to the entrepreneurial over the egalitarian at all times, has done little to change his bourgeois spots or court the lower orders that traditionally manned his party.

Mr B, I warrant, would defend his position with claims that in Blair's Britain there is no class divide - just as he was recently arguing that there was no north-south divide. The claim may be disingenuous; it is certainly wrong.

Politics - or at least, success in politics - is still down to a question of class. Just ask William Hague. While everyone is concentrating on Labour bickerings about middle v working class, Her Majesty's Opposition is also running into class clashes that could cost Wee Willie his post.

Traditionally, the backbone of the Conservative Party has been supported by that cast of tweedy thousands - the county wives. These true-blue women straight out of Trollope (Joanna, that is, not Anthony) are salt-of-the-earth types who cook on Agas and talk about (and no doubt to) herbaceous borders. They are married to the chinless wonders of whom Peter Mandelson is so dismissive, or to the hunting-shooting-fishing fraternity that were born in their Barbours. For these ladies who garden, the party is bred in the bones, as tribal an allegiance as the hunt you ride with. They take to it with all the grim determination with which they'll take their secateurs to an overgrown rose bush. From middle-aged battleaxes to fresh-faced English roses, the Tory ladies conduct an indefatigable schedule of coffee mornings to meet the local wannabe MP, fund-raising drinks to swell the party coffers and door-to-door campaigning with by-election leaflets.

These are the women who rule the Tory roost. Without their support, no leadership can survive. And it is precisely because Hague has failed to get the county ladies on side that his days at the helm of his party are numbered. Not all the county women are to the manor born; indeed, the majority hail from the sensibly heeled middle class. Yet if they are not posh, these county women are undeniably, Mitford-esquely, U; and Wee Willie, there's no doubt about it, is distinctly non-U. As he visits their gracious homes and dines at their polished tables, Hague looks like a fish out of water. The ladies sense it - and at the next coffee morning, they will trade anecdotes about how awkward he was at the dance, how ill at ease he seemed with the dissection of the afternoon's shoot, how he hesitated over the cutlery at his place setting. The ladies sigh and shake their head: poor man, how can he understand the Tory soul when he's flummoxed by a Dover sole?

Now, the ladies have encountered this gauche behaviour before in a prime minister. After all, John Major was nothing but a Brixton boy made good - a bit of rough. But Major had earned everyone's grudging respect for having torpedoed that icon of grassroots Tories, Maggie. Hague cannot boast this rather alarming, but somewhat exciting, macho pedigree. No, he and Sebastian Coe may do their wrestling, but with him, county wives cannot thrill at the secret viciousness of a street-fighter.

Hague is neither posh nor prole. He cannot fit into the world of Cotswold stones or village greens - nor does he, as Major did, hold it up as a nostalgic touchstone of a better past. This England, class-conscious and traditional-minded, seems alien territory to the man who should draw strength from its soil. The ladies have no truck with his indifference to their lineage: if he cannot appreciate them, they will not help him.

And so, in their gardens and their drawing rooms, the ladies come and go, whispering of "Michael Portillo".

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us