May 26, 2024

LONDON — He hopes to win the hearts and minds of devoted Donald Trump supporters ahead of next year’s U.S. election.

But Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis failed to impress British business chiefs at a high-profile London event Friday, in a tired performance described variously as “horrendous,” “low-wattage” and “like the end of an overseas trip.”

The Florida governor, expected to launch his bid next month to challenge Trump as the Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential race, met with more than 50 representatives of major U.K. firms and business lobbying groups as a part of a four-country “trade mission” ending in London Friday.

His trip was officially billed as an attempt to build Florida’s economic relationships with the U.K., Israel, South Korea and Japan, but it has been widely seen in Washington as a chance for DeSantis to present himself as a statesman on the world stage.

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For several of those present, however, the statesmanship was lacking.

One U.K. business figure said DeSantis “looked bored” and “stared at his feet” as he met with titans of British industry in an event co-hosted by Lloyd’s of London — the world’s largest insurance marketplace.

“He had been to five different countries in five days and he definitely looked spent, but his message wasn’t presidential,” they told POLITICO. “He was horrendous.”

A second business figure who was in the room said it was a “low-wattage” performance and that “nobody in the room was left thinking, ‘this man’s going places’.”

They said: “It felt really a bit like we were watching a state-level politician. I wouldn’t be surprised if [people in attendance] came out thinking ‘that’s not the guy’.”

“There wasn’t any stardust.”

A third person present at the event agreed “it felt like the end of an overseas trip — which it was,” but insisted DeSantis “came across well.” The best a fourth could muster was that DeSantis was “fine.”

DeSantis also met with U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch during a whistlestop tour of London, though Prime Minister Rishi Sunak avoided a bilateral with the right-wing governor.

Sunak was at a Scottish Conservative Party conference Friday, which a No. 10 official said had been in his diary for a “long time.”

DeSantis is trailing Trump in polling among Republican primary voters, but has attracted support among a number of establishment Republicans who see him as a less chaotic figure than the ex-president.

The governor won a landslide re-election last year in what is traditionally a swing state, and has attracted praise from many Republicans for his “anti-woke” agenda and his commitment to tax cuts.

A government official said Badenoch, a rising star in the Conservative Party, and DeSantis had a “fruitful” conversation and that the pair “got on well.”

However, the pair did not discuss the prospect of a state-level economic Memorandum of Understanding between the U.K. and Florida, despite Britain’s efforts to sign similar arrangements with other U.S. states.

A second official said Badenoch’s team “wanted to avoid talking about a Florida MoU” as others are being prioritized, and because of the difficult optics for a British government also dealing with Joe Biden’s White House on several trade-related issues.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said Cleverly and DeSantis discussed “the close and important relationship between the U.K. and Florida.”

“The meeting was an opportunity to strengthen ties with the?… U.S. state, and support bilateral economic co-operation that is already worth more than £5 billion a year,” they said.