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The John Bew profile: 'I’m not even sure that he is a Conservative'

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

9 min read

Foreign policy adviser John Bew has worked for three successive prime ministers. Sophie Church and Sienna Rodgers explore why he is so valuable. Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Remaining in post through three successive prime ministers is uncommon for a special adviser. Nor is it typical for a spad to be hired directly from academia. John Bew, 43, has proved the exception on both counts. The historian was first scouted by Boris Johnson to be his foreign policy adviser, then kept on by Liz Truss, and now finds himself indispensable to Rishi Sunak. What is the secret to his staying power?

Born in Belfast and raised in County Antrim, Bew – an only child – changed the lives of Paul Bew and Greta Jones when he came along. For his parents, both history professors, suddenly the next academic article or book contract was no longer their most important priority. Bew now has two daughters of his own, which has similarly made a profound impact on his life.

“It was something of a coup when Boris Johnson recruited him to No 10”

Bew was raised talking politics at the dinner table, though not in a day-to-day sense. Football – particularly Manchester United, his mother’s team – was more dominant, and Bew is still a keen football player. Other downtime pursuits include watching Derry Girls, a comedy about teenagers growing up in mid-1990s Derry.

His Northern Irish father, who now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer, was good friends with David Trimble and contributed to the Good Friday Agreement. Lord Bew’s influence on his son is clear in their shared interest in history and diplomacy. More specifically, Bew senior wrote about Lord Castlereagh, the Ulsterman who helped to defeat Napoleon as war secretary but was held partly responsible for the Peterloo massacre; his son later authored the biography Castlereagh.

Bew’s mother is English, from Lancashire, and was fascinated by former prime minister Clement Attlee. Her influence is evident, too: in 2017 Bew published acclaimed biography Citizen Clem. Jones is the author of several books on social Darwinism, and her work is referenced in Bew’s concept book Realpolitik.

At around the age of 10, Bew spent a year in Cambridge while Jones was a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi; he went on to gain a first-class history degree at the university. History professor Brendan Simms, an old lecturer, says Bew was an “excellent, probing supervisee who even then understood the critical importance of foreign policy”. His student went on to become the youngest ever holder of the Henry A Kissinger chair in foreign policy at the US Library of Congress.

Bew’s deep understanding of foreign policy appears to be highly prized by Sunak, who has shown little interest in foreign affairs and – apparently unconcerned by the possibility he could be upstaged – has chosen to give the ministerial role to ex-PM David Cameron. On foreign trips, Sunak has been known to defer to Bew, handing over press briefings to his spad.

In Westminster, Bew is widely recognised for his intellect. Noting Bew’s “granular intelligence”, Conservative MP Bob Seely says he hears “nothing but solid praise for him, that he’s pretty smart and he’s pretty good at politics – certainly with a small p, knowledge-wise – but also on stickability”.

He is also known for his personable nature. A former colleague of Bew who worked with him during Boris Johnson’s premiership tells The House: “I don’t think you’ll find anyone with a bad word to say about him. He’s just a thoroughly nice guy.”

Of his approach to work, they add: “He’s that rare blend of someone who’s super knowledgeable, really top of his field, but also not naive about politics. He understands how politics works and how to do diplomacy.”

Crossbench peer Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser and British ambassador, describes Bew’s strength as “applying historical expertise to modern policymaking, using the lessons of the past, and using the strategies of previous statesmen to inform the way governments do strategic work now”.

Bew was brought into government in 2019 by the politically eclectic Munira Mirza, then head of the No 10 policy unit. He had been leading the King’s College “Grand Strategy” programme, which aims to bring historical and strategic expertise to statecraft. His Atlanticist view of Britain’s place in the world is captured by the Defence Integrated Review of 2021, and more recently, as onlookers in Parliament suspect, in the Atlantic Declaration of 2023 and a partnership document signed with Ukraine. 

As the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser, his work offers the Conservative Party a means of dressing up the declinist reality that Britain is now, at best, a “convening power” with limited military muscle. His interest in realpolitik – the subject of his 2015 book – reflects the view that Britain must work with actors it is not fond of.

For David Lidington, de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, now chair of think tank RUSI, Bew’s thinking represents a pushback against a Robin Cook style of ethical foreign policy.

“I don’t think John has ever argued that human rights are unimportant, but I think what does come from his writing is a sense that there’s no point in taking a great stand on human rights if you haven’t actually got the capabilities to defend Western democracy rule of law in a liberal society yourself,” the former MP says.

With his academic grounding, Bew gives intellectual credibility to the “Global Britain” narrative. “It was something of a coup when Boris Johnson recruited him to No 10,” adds Lidington.

Some Boris Johnson critics are still not entirely convinced; Lord Ricketts, for example, suggests political sloganeering has hindered Bew’s contributions from materialising into action. “Some of the very exceptionalist language about Britain being a world leader and a superpower in many areas was political presentation laid on top of the John Bew analysis,” the crossbench peer says.

“I think the 2021 review was a mixture of deep strategic thinking and also political straplines which were much more broad brush, and in the end I think have not proved so long-lasting. Nobody talks about ‘Global Britain’ anymore.”

“He was an Attlee-style social democrat, a fusion of Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee”

Bew’s personal politics are difficult to pin down. His father started out in the Northern Ireland Labour Party Young Socialists as a teenager but is now a crossbencher. Working under three Conservative prime ministers might paint him as a loyal Tory aide, but in parts Bew’s CV suggests otherwise.

His breakthrough book was a Clement Attlee biography. While other biographers – Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds; journalist and historian Francis Beckett – take on Attlee the man, Bew focuses on Attlee’s foreign policy.

“It would not have given me any fun or satisfaction to write the book which John Bew has written, because there’s no passion in it,” says Beckett. “I want to temper that by saying it is a thoroughly professional, fair academic piece of work.”

Beckett sees a contradiction between Bew’s current employment and his interest in Attlee. “It is really quite strange that somebody who can put a lot of time and effort into a biography of Clement Attlee could also work for the present Conservative government.”

Lidington echoes the view of other sources who spoke to The House in remarking that Bew is “not seen as aligned with any particular faction in the Conservative Party”. “I’m not even sure that he is a Conservative,” he says.

“I don’t think he’s a very partisan person,” adds Lord Ricketts. “I think he’s prepared to bring his skills to do the best he can for the government that’s serving at the time.”

Is it far-fetched to imagine Bew could be a fit for an incoming Labour government? 

“He’s somebody certainly I think that would feel at home equally working for an Atlanticist, strong, pro-defence Labour ministry, as well as for the Conservative equivalent,” says Lidington. 

Interestingly, Bew has not given the same impression to colleagues; the former coworker from the Johnson era who spoke to The House describes him as “a proper Tory”.

But as a regular contributor to the left-leaning New Statesman between 2014 and 2018, Bew lashed out at David Cameron’s government for its “swingeing defence cuts” and for failing to “understand the nature of the world in which we operate”. 

NS editor Jason Cowley talent-spotted the writer by asking students and academics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, whether they could recommend “a young Niall Ferguson but of the left”. Their answer was Bew, by then at King’s College London.

“What interested me was, not only was he already a very accomplished historian; he had a very interesting politics. He was an Attlee-style social democrat, a fusion of Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee. Quite left on the economy, but with a strong Atlanticist worldview. And a very gifted writer,” Cowley says.

“He was a young, politically engaged, dynamic historian, who was very interested in power in politics. I always had a sense he wanted to get close to political power, as well as pursue an academic career. Quite unusual – more in the American model.”

Plucking strategists from academia to advise government is indeed a very American approach. Despite the potential tension for precedence between political and academic thought, it is one that, as Bew’s durability proves, could be taken more in the UK. 

“I actually really like it and think we need to do much, much more of it,” says Bob Seely. “We have so many think tanks devoted to strategy, and yet I sometimes feel that government has done it less and less well in the last 50 years.”

The fact Bew is not a politician could explain his success in No 10. Bew has never sought the limelight for himself, nor been attracted to social media. His interactions with journalists have been minimal and he is known to be discreet.

The House hears Bew has been “sounded out” for an advisory role in the next Labour administration, not directly but by some of those orbiting the leadership. According to some, he would be very tempted if the offer were made.

All agree that Bew’s future is wide open: he would be warmly welcomed back to the New Statesman; he could return to academia, maybe go to an American university. Or perhaps this time next year he will be advising Keir Starmer, his fourth prime minister on the trot. 

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