Review: ‘I never promised you a rose garden’ by Jonny Oates

Last week Jonny Oates published his memoir “I never promised you a rose garden” (BiteBack). Jonny is best known to most Lib Dems as Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff during Coalition, and as our current spokesperson for Energy and Climate Change in the House of Lords.

Many years ago Jonny was the twenty-something political assistant to the Council group in Kingston, and I first met him then, so I skimmed through the book to find the chapter where he talks about people I know. It is, amazingly, halfway through, so there was obviously a lot I didn’t know about him.

I started the book again, and read it properly, and it is certainly worth doing so. By the time you get to the account of Ed Davey’s first, and astonishing, election as MP for Kingston & Surbiton in 1997, you can understand how Jonny, as agent, alongside the legendary Belinda Eyre-Brook, achieved the impossible, in overturning a 15,000 Tory majority.  This is a man of deep integrity who is quietly determined, possessing the qualities of a team leader (but never a bully) and a sharp political mind, honed in the extraordinary politics of post-apartheid South Africa.

But as a teenager he was conflicted. He writes candidly about his own mental health and his struggles to come to terms with who he was, to the extent that he ran away to Ethiopia at the age of 15 and contemplated suicide. He tells us about the good people who came into his life and guided him with compassion, and the recognition that his parents’ love was unconditional after all.

Of course, Lib Dem Voice readers will be particularly interested in what he has to say about his time as Director of General Election Communications for the 2010 Election, and subsequently as Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister. Jonny gives us a slightly different, but not contradictory, perspective on the Coalition negotiations from those of David Laws and others.

Overall this is an unusual political memoir. No secrets are revealed in this book, no shameful exposures – he is too nice a person for that – but many deeply personal stories and insights are shared. It is a beautifully crafted tale, switching flawlessly between time periods and between first and third person narratives.

At yesterday’s launch event for his book, Jonny told us that he was originally planning to write a novel, but felt he had to explore aspects of his own life first. With that having been achieved so successfully, I am really looking forward to reading his first work of fiction at some time in the future – if politics don’t get in the way again, of course.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Someone said this to me,” I wish we had a coalition Government here, mainly to give all the MPs a say in tackling Covid-19, instead of leaving it to Boris and Dominic Cummings.”

  • John Marriott 30th Oct '20 - 9:14am

    The first line in country singer, Lynn Anderson’s Grammy winning song actually begins “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden”. Perhaps apologies have been overdone when it comes to THAT Coalition. Clegg probably did it to death with his plaintive broadcast that was seized on by digital music enthusiasts. So, good on Mr Oates for leaving it out.

    I probably will not be reading this particular book in a hurry, as I am still ploughing through the literature on the history of the Liberal Party as recommended to me by my unofficial tutor, Professor David Raw of the University of Life. Behind me are Dangerfield and Wilson and I’m currently half way through Dutton at the 1935 General Election, to be precise. It’s pretty grim reading with Samuelites versus Simonites with DLG still fuming in the wings and still clutching that ‘Political Fund’ of his.

    Perhaps, if Ms Anderson had been around back then, the song might have been more appropriate for that time in the party’s history. Which reminds me yet again of one of Yogi Berra’s famous sayings; “It’s déjà vu all over again”. Mind you, the next line of her song sums it up perfectly when she sings “Along with the sunshine there’s gotta be a little rain sometime”. Unfortunately for the Liberals since 1906 there has been much more of the latter.

  • Lin Macmillan 30th Oct '20 - 9:33am

    At last! Someone who understands that the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is not the “Leader of the Church”! Thank you Mary Reid

  • I won’t delete Lin’s comment (after all, it is complementary to me!) but it should really be under this post:

  • @ John Marriott Always a pleasure, John.

    To really deepen your gloom as the dark nights encroach, you can get G.R. Searle’s, ‘The Liberal Party, Triumph and Disintegration, 1886-1929’, Abe Books for £ 2.39. or, well worth a read, also on Abe Books, POLITICAL WINGS William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate by Alun Wyburn-Powel for £ 4.99.

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