PROFILE: The liberal rock, Jonathan Oates,

Politics has become interesting again aft­er being in a deep freeze for six or seven years,' remarks a perfectly poised Jonat­han Oates, the Liberal Democrats' director of policy and comms, who sits in his rather humble but neatly ordered office.

Jonathan Oates
Jonathan Oates

Based in the political heart of London, Oates enjoys being part of the Westminster bubble but believes that getting the Libe­ral Democrats known ‘in the real world' is crucial to the party's success. His strategy is to get party leader Nick Clegg holding public meetings and being prep­ared to take more risks than the other parties.

But this policy can lead to mistakes. Clegg's recent interview with Piers Morgan for GQ magazine caused huge ripples when he admitted to having slept with ‘up to 30 women'. The media had a field day, with the party leader being dubbed ‘Cleggover'.

Oates is rather stoical about it all. ‘It is part of Nick's openness. Sometimes that has downsides because the message can get distracted. But, to be honest, a lot of fuss has been made of this and it's overblown. If you talk to ordinary people, their reponse is: "what's the big deal?" I'm not going to waste too much time worrying about it.'

When asked where he was when he heard about the slip-up, he smiles. ‘It's not a Kennedy moment.'

Oates' message for those who are blaming the media handlers is that, as the person responsible for comms, critics should be coming to him. But he believes it will not affect the party in the long term. ‘In a month's time everyone will have moved on,' he says.

Jonathan OatesThe impeccably dressed 38-year-old keeps his cards close to his chest, never straying far from the party line. When asked to relay any interesting stories about others in public affairs, Oates hesitates. Not for the first time during the interview, his face is difficult to read. He ends the silence by saying: ‘No, I'm not going to say anything. It wouldn't be wise.'

Oates is well connected in the industry, having cut his teeth at the legendary Westminster Strategy, and been a start-up staff member at Mark Bolland Associates, bef­ore joining the powerhouse of Bell Pottinger.

He also met many journalists and PROs while his father was the rector of Fleet Street church St Bride's during the time that John McCarthy was a hostage in Beirut and Rupert Murdoch moved his press ope­rations to Wapping.

He claims not to have close links with his peers in the other parties because he believes it would all become ‘so incestuous'. But his dad is a huge fan of Andy Coulson, comms director for the Tory party.

‘He actually rang me when Andy was appointed, to ask if I minded him writing a letter congratulating him, because he knew him from his News of the World editor days,' he remembers. ‘I said that's fine, as long as you point out how much more he is allegedly being paid than me.'

He is smiling as he says it, but the Lib Dems do have fewer res­ources than the other parties. Oates says that this, combined with a media tende­ncy to overlook the
party, makes the team more inventive bec­ause they have to work harder for coverage.

‘The national media seem to default to a two-party story. But we have to push against that by making the point that often Labour and the Tor­ies are on the same side of an issue,' he says. ‘We have to grab attention. We cannot assume it will come our way,' he adds.

Charities Aid Foundation's director of comms Mark Webster, the former spokesman for Sir Menzies Campbell, praises Oates for having an anchoring effect on the team. At the party conferences last year, says Webster, when internal bitching was rife, Oates kept everyone calm. ‘He's the Liberal Democrats' rock and a good egg,' he says.

Oates was politicised at 15 years old when he saw Michael Buerk's report on the Ethiopian famine. After posting an exp­lanatory letter to his parents he boar­ded a plane to the ravaged country with £10 in his pocket. ‘I thought, rather naively I have to confess, that I could change the world by pure force of will,' he explains.

Although he was rescued by Anglican missionaries and sent back home, his fascination with Africa subsequently led to a period teaching in Zimbabwe and, after earning his political stripes as a local councillor in Kingston upon Thames, working on election strategy for the South African Inkatha Freedom Party.

He recalls one tricky moment when the party leadership revealed all the weapons it had gathered during the violent clashes that marked the final years of apartheid. ‘All our carefully planned messages got slightly lost,' says Oates. ‘It wasn't the ideal way to launch an election campaign.'

It is clear that Oates is driven by a genuine social conscience. When I put it to him that an ambitious person would join one of the parties more likely to get into power, he is quick to respond. ‘Power has to be for a purpose. I didn't get involved in politics to have power. In fact, I got involved in politics to challenge power when it was misused,' he says.

‘That's not to say I don't want the power to put our principles into effect, but power for the sake of it is an extremely dangerous thing,' he warns.
What comes across most strikingly when speaking to those that know him is how much he is liked across party lines. As Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman
Pet­er Bingle says: ‘Clegg is lucky to have the best comms person in the business working for him. It is impossible to dislike Jon Oates.'

2007 Director of policy and comms, Lib Dems
2005 Election adviser, Jeremy Browne MP
2004 Director, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs
2001 Comms adviser, Youth Justice Board, then election agent, Dr Jenny Tonge MP
1999 Political and media adviser, South African Parliament
1992 Account manager, Westminster Strategy

What was your biggest career break?
Taking a friend's advice in 1992 to apply for a job at public affairs agency Westminster Strategy, and as a result learning the profession from some of the best people in the business.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Be enthusiastic, determined and always be prepared to go the extra mile to deliver for your organisation or clients. Don't be afraid to make mistakes or step out of your comfort zone. But however high you climb up the ladder, never forget what it's like to be starting out at the bottom and encourage those who are.

Who was your most notable mentor?
Vijay Solanki, marketing services director at BP Lubricants. Vijay's an enthusiast about life and passionate about everything he does. We first worked together 15 years ago and in that time I've learned a huge amount from him about challenging conventional approaches and learning from every experience. His willingness to tell it like it is makes him a great source of objective advice.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A can-do attitude, a team mentality and a willingness to learn. But above all, people who are passionate about what they do and know how to have fun when they're doing it.

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