Lief Schneider: why Londoners love Boris


Don’t be fooled by the odd socks – the Mayor’s success is no accident, says the director of Schneider Bartosch Communications

Londoners make up the most fickle, cynical, often scathing constituency on earth.

So just how did the politico who refused to be “spun” win the hearts and minds of the world’s harshest critics?

I have always strongly believed that the rise and rise of Boris is no accident. His successful pitch to win the hearts and minds of Londoners was pure genius – a coup pulled off by those with a deep understanding of the London mindset.

For Boris, I believe, is a perfect example of a public figure that satisfies the basic human needs and yearnings of a sophisticated urban audience.

Ironically, Londoners chose him for many of the same reasons that they chose Red Ken before him. They are, in numerous ways, mirror images of each other.

From a reputation management point of view, Boris is a dream case study; a formula built in heaven. Because when it comes to entrepreneurial go-getting, all-tolerating but all-seeing London, there is a basic set of rules that you need to follow…


Londoners hate being taken for fools

The timing was perfect. Boris was first voted in after 11 years of New Labour rule. This was a period of increasing paranoia for the Labour party, when their spokespeople were clearly constrained by the “party line”. Londoners, with their love of free speech and independent mindedness, didn’t like it. Yes, they voted for Ken Livingstone. But he was initially the independent candidate. Londoners don’t like the prescriptive or being prescribed to and were fed up to the back teeth with New Labour yes-men.

Londoners have a sense of humour

From Berwick Street’s fruit sellers to the City’s top traders, Londoners have a sense of humour. Which means they can both stick two fingers up to the politically correct rest of the world and vote in Boris. And they can understand his jokes.

Londoners like mavericks and eccentrics

If you’re born in London, as I am, you learn before you can walk that London is far too eclectic and busy a place to bother with fitting in. Survival lies in differentiation. If you come to London in search of the bright lights and streets paved with gold – you don’t do it because you want to conform.   

Londoners like ideas

Boris announces ideas like there’s no tomorrow. Teach classics to underprivileged children; revive the Fleet River and make London the new Venice; create a landing strip on an island in the Thames. Most of these don’t stick. But occasionally they do – and very successfully – such as Boris bikes and banning alcohol on public transport.  As arguably the most entrepreneurial people in the world, Londoners understand that not all ideas are practicable, but it’s important to have them.

Londoners are cultured and well rounded

With his sideline in history books and documentaries and his clumsy running routine – not to mention his editorship of The Spectator – Boris Johnson is something of a renaissance man, not just another one-dimensional politician.

Londoners are big-picture folk

Listening to Boris speak, as I have done several times, can be quite cringy. He may get it right, or he may be utterly unprepared and fumble when asked for a breakdown of nuts and bolts. But this rarely seems to matter. Londoners want to know the top line, not the detail.

Londoners aren’t censorious about sex

You don’t come to London to curtain twitch. An immigrant member of my own family used to say the reason she had adopted London as her home was because you could walk naked down Piccadilly and no one would even look. She didn’t want to walk naked down Piccadilly, she explained, but she liked the thought that she could. 

While Boris would probably have been thrown out long ago if there were such a thing as “Mayor of the Home Counties”, Londoners are tolerant and liberal. You want to have a mistress?  Go ahead – it’s your funeral. It’s not that Londoners celebrate sexual impropriety and transgression – it’s just that they don’t care either way.

Londoners like confidence…

One balmy summer evening in a Clerkenwell foyer where it was too hot to wait for my business partner Fiona Bartosch (herself a former press advisor to the New Labour great and the good, and, she would want me to point out, a Ken Livingstone fan), I found myself wondering towards an outside table at a pub at the bottom of Herbal Hill.   

Who should be sitting at the next table with some young work colleagues, but Stanley Johnson, Mr Johnson Senior? And what did he talk about for the entire half hour I was waiting there? Well, Boris, or any other offspring, would have died. Proud dad went on and on about his beloved son. Like Maureen Lipman’s Jewish grandmother in the classic BT ads, every “ology” Boris ever got was hailed by his father as a triumph. It was a fascinating insight into the backstory of Boris – a man who has not come from the chilly fridge, stiff upper lip, toughen-em-up stables of some of his Eton contemporaries. 

London is no place for wallflowers. And anyone who still believes that the capital is a hotbed of negativity hasn’t taken a look at the City’s ever-burgeoning skyline recently. Boris isn’t a wallflower. He has believed from birth that, like Bob the Builder and Barack Obama, he can do it, yes, he can. 

…but they also like shyness

London isn’t like New York. It’s not brash. It’s open-minded and confident, yet still informed and influenced by British reserve. And it’s a funny old thing: Boris is a blusher. When he falls in a poisonous canal he’s helping to clean up, or forgets his figures, or is apologising to the people of Liverpool, Boris blushes. And for that, we adore him. 

Lief Schneider is a director of Schneider Bartosch Communications. She specialises in profile building and reputation management, and advises some of the capital’s most prominent business leaders and people in the public eye. Lief doesn’t mince her words and applies a common sense approach to communications and business strategy. An unrepentant smoker and urbanista, she is a regular media commentator. Ideas expressed here are hers and not those of anyone else in the company.