4 min read31 min
Torsten and Olaf Henricson-Bell have built extraordinary careers in Whitehall and Westminster, but many believe they could go even further.
With the Milibands, the Eagles and the Johnsons, Westminster has had no shortage of siblings at the highest levels of British politics. But away from the headlines, Torsten and Olaf Henricson-Bell are among the most influential.
Educated at Oxford and Cambridge the non-identical twins entered the civil service early in their careers, working up to senior positions at the Treasury during some of the most crucial points in recent history; Torsten during the financial crisis and Olaf as the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Politics and policy are a family affair. Their mother, Clem Henricson, is a policy analyst and activist, while their father Bill Bell worked as an academic and children’s rights advocate.
Among Whitehall wonks, the rise of the brothers was unsurprising due to what one former colleague described as their “razor sharp intellect” and “Stakhanovite work ethic”.
According to Tom Baldwin, Labour’s former head of communications, the “proper brilliance” of Torsten was recognised when he was around 21, when he left Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling “open mouthed” after telling them where “they were going wrong and what they needed to do to fix it”. That single meeting, Baldwin says, was the catalyst for his hiring as a special adviser.
While Torsten entered the political fray, Olaf was continuing his rise through the civil service. A decade in the Foreign Office led to him being poached by the Treasury in early 2019 to serve as press secretary to Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond, staying on under Sajid Javid and then Rishi Sunak until June 2021 when he was appointed Europe Director at the Cabinet Office.
Colleagues remember him as “razor-sharp” and able to quickly get to grips with the complexities of the Treasury, even during the pandemic.
“He’s very creative, and came with a lot of energy,” one senior Treasury official says. “[He was] a key architect in the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs.”
Former Conservative minister for Europe, David Lidington, who Olaf worked for as his private secretary, said alongside a strong grip on policy, he had an “almost uncanny ability to get the importance of politics in a minister’s life”.
“That is not something all civil servants have, not even the good ones,” he says. “If he stays in the civil service, he has the ability to go right to the top.”
Lidington added: “I once joked with Ed Miliband about if [Torsten and Olaf] swapped jobs for the day how long it would take us to notice. We both thought it would take quite a bit of time.”
Having joined the civil service in 2009, Olaf has served primarily under Conservative governments, even while his brother was openly criticising the policies and departments he was working for in new roles as head of policy to then-Labour leader Miliband and later at a thinktank , a situation one Westminster journalist described as “jarring”.
“Olaf’s job was to defend the Budget to journalists, and then up popped Torsten on Today the next morning absolutely trashing it but sounding – of course – exactly the same.”
If Olaf harbours any strong political views of his own, he has kept them firmly under wraps. Keeping a low profile, it seems, extends to both brothers, to the extent it’s hard to pin down their exact age; they are thought to have recently celebrated their 40th birthday.
After the 2015 election campaign (during which he was blamed by some colleagues for the infamous “Edstone”), Torsten left frontline politics and was appointed chief executive of the Resolution Foundation think-tank, where his analysis has become a must-read for journalists and policy makers. So influential are his pronouncements that several Labour figures have urged party chiefs to seek out a safe seat for him to stand in.
With Olaf’s continued rise through the civil service, some have even imagined a future Labour cabinet meeting where one brother sits as a cabinet minister – and the other as cabinet secretary.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House’s morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.