Meet the women of Ukip

"Lynton Crosby is trawling," Janice Atkinson says, looking across Portcullis House at the MPs and researchers eating their lunch. Like most of Ukip's campaigners, she feels the Australian election strategist brought in to help David Cameron defeat the Ukip threat is stalking their members for embarrassing revelations. 

"He's got interns sat there, trawling through Twitter, Facebook. They've too many resources and we're too much of a threat to them."

She takes a sip from her coffee.

"Look at Kent. They must be really worried down there. They'll be saying to Central Office – dig stuff up on Ukip."

Janice is at the vanguard of Ukip as it tries to consolidate shock by-election results into a reliable poll position and an enduring power base at the European level. She's number two on the south-east list of potential Ukip MEPs, right after Nigel Farage, and working on the party's welfare policies. She's uniquely placed to feel the scary edges of the Conservative election machine as it tries to discredit the party Cameron branded a bunch of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

"I'm more guarded these days," she says. "More so than when I was a Tory. I feel I've got more enemies."

I remind her of a conversation we had two and a half yeas ago, in the very same room, when she told me she was quitting the Tories and joining Ukip. I responded in a manner not dissimilar to Cameron. I'm still not convinced it's an entirely inaccurate description, but it's true the mainstream has moved towards Ukip at least as far as Ukip has moved towards the mainstream.

Janice's experience in the Tories left little room for sentimentality.

"I was never flavour of the month because I was on the right of the party," she says.

"The Lisbon treaty came up. I was on the list [of potential party candidates] but I organised anti-EU constitution days across the south east. I was hauled into Central Office and asked:

'Why are you doing this?' I said: 'I'm a campaigner, I have my principles.' They said: 'Janice, stop doing it.'

"Then I was hauled in front of [Tory deputy chairman] John Maples and he was bashing the table, absolutely bashing it. 'My candidates will not sign Better Of Out', he said. 'You will not be standing there with those people'. I thought: 'Oh God.' I'd signed up for Better Off Out the day before.

"Luckily their computer had rejected me. There was a glitch in the system. So I thought: 'For once Janice, just shut up. Don't saw a word.' I behaved myself. I was marginalised but I rang up Maples and said: "I'll be a good little girly candidate. I'll sing from the Cameroon hymn sheet. And suddenly I got interviews again."

It didn't last long.

"When the shadow Cabinet asked 'where do you stand on Europe?' I said: 'I'll say what I think.' [Then-shadow international development secretary] Andrew Mitchell was a real bully over it. Then on immigration I was dragged over to see [then-opposition chief whip] Patrick McLoughlin. They said: 'Janice tell him about your problem'. His eyes misted over.

"And then Ukip stood down against me."

But even without a Ukip challenger, her attempt to secure a seat for the Tories in 2010 failed and Janice moved over to the eurosceptic party not long afterwards.

"They got more professional about the way they recruited candidates," she says. "They brought in psychometric tests, conducted interviews and had head-hunters run it."

Psychometric tests?

"It was just questions like…. straightforward questions, things like 'did you steal as a child?' They had mock media interviews too –  people giving you the most awful, horrendous media interview."

I ask her exactly how much further to the right Cameron would have to go to get Kippers like herself back. On immigration, the EU and welfare, there doesn't seem to be much more room before he falls off a cliff. Her answer suggests she agrees.

"A Tory MP has proposed a welfare card," she starts. "Anyone using the card wouldn't be able to buy certain things – no Sky telly, no booze, no cigarettes."

I am not sure whether she's going to condemn this as the mad illiberal nonsense it so clearly is or celebrate it. "He would go further than me. He wants everyone on benefits to have that card.  I say you've paid in all your life and suddenly you're redundant. Who am I to say you can't have your cigarettes, you can't have Sky telly? I say yes – but only for people who've been on welfare for more than five years. I'm not as right wing. We're not as right wing as the Tories on some of these issues."

So Ukip are the moderate alternative to the Tory party on welfare? I can't help but smile. It's not the first time I've come across the idea. There is a temptation for Ukip to portray itself as a more reasonable version of the Conservative party. But the idea that people would leave the Tories for not being right-wing enough and then brand it too right-wing when it tries to attract them back has a certain dark irony to it.

We discuss the so-called racist anti-immigration vans and UKBA spot checks at London Tube stations. "It's real Big Brother stuff. It's quite frightening. How can you identify people? Only by having slightly darker than white skin. There's a whiff of racism about that."

You can see how careful Ukip is to disassociate itself from anything which could ever be considered racism, given how convincing that Cameron quote seemed. But concerns about knee-jerk sexism continue to plague the party, not least after a Godfrey Bloom article for suggested women were better in the pantry than men, but worse at parking cars.

"It's the same as how it was in the Tory party," she says, dismissing the suspicion with a wave of the heand.

"In the clubs, in the working men's clubs – there was more misogyny there. A very prominent former Cabinet minister told me that when she'd gone for a safe seat the women said: 'My dear, you have three children back home and a husband, what will they will be doing when you're on the green benches?'

Ukip's women often downplay 'off colour jokes' and 'political incorrectness' – phrases which could mean all sorts of things. But they all share a fierce pride in having made it to where they are without the use of all-women shortlists. If the MEP selection process works out as Janice hopes it will, they could start to lay their claim at the upper levels of the party with five or six women in Brussels.

Louise Bours

Prospective number three on north-west list

"My acting career started with Band of Gold, a series about prostitutes. Then I did Peak Practice and  after that Brookside. I did Brookside the same year that I got into the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. That was a big ambition for me as I was a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan. That was a great couple of years.

"It wasn't a normal career progression.  I was moaning to someone in 2002. They happened to say: why don’t you stand as a councillor? The penny dropped and I thought: I might quite like to do that actually. I stood as a Conservative candidate, not because I was a member of the party but because the guy I was speaking to was a Conservative.

"I got elected and that was the point the penny dropped really. Some of the things jarred with me. I didn’t like a lot of thing the Conservative-controlled council were doing. There was a huge debacle with car parking charges. Protest groups sprung up. I went along and sat in. What offended me was the absolute disinterest of the councillors.

"These people were being treated with contempt by the people they elected.

"I challenged the councillors. I found them wanting in the extreme. They disregarded peoples' opinions in such a nonchalant manner. I thought: there's no way I can be involved. So I left the Conservatives and became an independent councillor. I found that really quite difficult. You're on your own in a party of one.

"It culminated with my youngest daughter becoming poorly. It was a perfect storm. I decided not to stand to be re-elected.

"In 2009 I went along to a public Ukip meeting near where I lived. I was absolutely blown away by [Ukip MEP and deputy leader] Paul Nuttall. He was speaking the language of my family, of a working class family. I read more about the policies, of the people involved. It resonated with me, certainly with my family. They were speaking for working class folk.

"I am very much aware of being a woman in Ukip. I sit on national executive committee and I'm the only woman. Women need more opportunities. But I abhor the women-only shortlists. If I thought I'd got a job because I was a woman I'd be so insulted by that.

"It's difficult for women. I'm a single mum with two daughters. It's blooming difficult sometimes, organising childcare and then going to meetings. That's what organisations like Ukip need to sort out – help for women like me, who might be single mums, women who have a passion but find it difficult to fit it into their lives.

"That's what we have to make a change. I'm proud of the change we're making in Ukip. We want women to have a prominent role. But they have to have prominent role because they're the best people for the job."

Margot Parker

Prospective number two in the east-Midlands

"I never joined a political party in my life until I joined Ukip. I represented a trade association in Brussels. I lobbied there for small and medium sized business in the UK.

"The more I got involved, the more I started to ask questions. We were campaigning for a level playing field in Europe. It became more and more obvious to me that SME's were disregarded by the Commission. But if you're a large corporation you have influence.

"I took a message back to my board which was revolutionary but not what they wanted to hear. I was asked: 'Can you deliver this particular directive?' I said: 'No. I can't. You take two steps forward and five back.'

"I believe in opening up business in Europe, but of course the route through Brussels was a laborious one which was hugely expensive. I said: 'Pull out of lobbying in Brussels because it's expensive and it's not worth the money.'

"I realised that we could do nothing. Then the Lisbon treaty reared its head. That was my lightbulb moment.

"In my own branch we've got a good show of women and a particularly good bunch of blokes. It's even-stevens really. "

Jane Collins

Prospective number two in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire

"Fifteen years ago I was introduced to Katie, Godfrey Bloom's wife. We came together through horses. Katie is very well known physiotherapist for horses and I was a relatively well known competition runner. Godfrey introduced me to Ukip.

"At that moment in time I didn't have a political head or brain on me. But I took an interest. At that time Ukip really was more of a protest group than a party.

"I've never been a member of a political party apart from Ukip. When you get a bit older and you have a family, you get a wide picture of life. You realise things do make a difference. You either start shouting at the television or you get involved.

"I don't look at politics like you're male or female. I have never focused on that. I take it on a person's ability, if they have the ability to do the job it doesn’t matter who they are or where they're from.

"Talking about women's quotas isn't helpful. If I were to employ anyone it's the person who'll get the job done."