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The Morning Dispatch: Boris Johnson Survives No-Confidence Vote
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The Morning Dispatch: Boris Johnson Survives No-Confidence Vote

Plus: Will we need another COVID booster in the fall?

Happy Tuesday! A Chinese influencer was hawking ice cream on a live stream on Friday—the anniversary of China’s crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters—and showed a dessert that resembled a tank. His livestream abruptly cut off, prompting some of his 170 million young followers to research why a tank would inspire censorship. Maybe not what Chinese officials were hoping to accomplish?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a 211-148 no-confidence vote by members of his Conservative Party Monday that was triggered by ongoing criticism of his flouting of lockdown rules during the COVID pandemic. Other Conservative prime ministers have not long survived such division within their own party, but Johnson has vowed to continue in his post, calling the outcome a “decisive result.”

  • New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a new law Monday raising the age at which people can purchase semi-automatic rifles in the state from 18 to 21 and requiring social media companies to “maintain easily accessible mechanisms” for citizens to report threats of violence with the aim of making red-flag laws easier to enforce.

  • A federal judge on Monday blocked Louisiana’s new congressional district map from going into effect on the grounds that it contained only one majority-black district. (Louisiana’s population is one-third black.) Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said he would call the Republican legislature into a special session to draw a new map, which the judge ordered be completed before June 20.

  • An Australian court on Monday ordered Google to pay $515,000 to former Australian politician John Barilaro for failing to take down from YouTube a campaign of “relentless, racist, vilificatory, abusive, and defamatory” videos attacking him, which the court ruled “drove Mr. Barilaro prematurely from his chosen service in public life and traumatized him significantly.”

  • The Justice Department on Monday charged five members of the Proud Boys far-right militia group, including one-time leader Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, with seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6 riot at the Capitol. The Justice Department made use of the same charge earlier this year against members of another militia group, the Oath Keepers.

  • The Biden administration will suspend import tariffs on solar panels and invoke the Defense Production Act to goose production of solar panel parts in an effort to boost U.S. clean energy production, officials said Monday

(Photo by Alberto Pezzali/AFP/Getty Images.)

Boris Dodges Disaster—For Now

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will live to party another day.

He survived a no-confidence vote by Conservative Party members in Parliament on Monday evening, winning 211-148—opponents needed a simple majority of 180 to oust him. Under party rules, he’s now safe for a year from any more such challenges. His supporters in Parliament greeted the news of his victory with cheers and pounding on their desks.

It seems incredible, but yes, this is still about revelations that Johnson attended parties at Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdowns. London police fined 83 officials including Johnson for attending various garden, birthday, and holiday parties. Months ago it seemed Johnson was nearing the threshold of dissent in his party that would trigger a no-confidence vote. Then the war in Ukraine pulled attention from the scandal, and his response to the war—strong support for Ukraine—won him praise. 

But other trouble has still been brewing—corruption allegations, a chaotic pandemic response, and inflation have all played a role in eroding his popularity. His party took a beating in local elections May 5, and policy disagreements such as whether to send refugees to Rwanda or ban noisy protests have fractured the Tories. On May 25, civil servant Sue Gray released her investigation of the “Partygate” scandal, concluding several gatherings “should not have been allowed” under the COVID-19 rules that Johnson’s government had set. Conservative frustration boiled over, and enough Tory members withdrew their support to trigger the vote—though not until after Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebration this weekend, because no one steals the queen’s thunder.

Johnson declared the “extremely good” win a chance to leave Partygate behind and focus on “what we as the government are doing to help people.” Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said opposing Tories should give up: “People have got to recognize they didn’t get the vote of no confidence through. What they should now do is say, ‘OK, we respect the democratic decision of the party, we’re going to support the prime minister getting on with his job.’” If wishes were fishes, Cleverly. 

Johnson earned only about 59 percent support—former Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote in 2018 with about a 63 percent margin, and was still hounded into resigning a few months later. Johnson has happily resisted calls to resign so far, and his opposition is less organized than was May’s, but he still has to face the fallout of a coming investigation into whether he lied to Parliament about the parties—a resignation-worthy offense, though Johnson denies lying.

In fact, Johnson’s survival may if anything be a victory for the opposing parties. A snap poll by YouGov Monday found 60 percent of British voters thought Johnson should be ousted, and his overall approval has dropped to 26 percent. 

The next general election is a ways out, but a by-election for two parliament seats on June 23 could serve as a referendum on how thoroughly Johnson has trashed the party brand. Minutes after Johnson’s survival was announced, Labour leader Keir Starmer made it an election issue: “Divided Tories propping up Boris Johnson with no plan to tackle the issues you are facing. Or a united Labour Party with a plan to fix the cost of living crisis and restore trust in politics.”

And Johnson is likely to face continued calls for his resignation even from former allies.

“You are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage, at a time when the economy is struggling, inflation is soaring and growth is anemic at best,” former treasury minister and longtime Johnson-supporting Conservative Jesse Norman wrote in a letter released Monday. “Neither the Conservative party nor this country can afford to squander the next two years adrift and distracted by endless debate about your and your leadership.” 

The Future of the COVID Vaccine 

At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic—before hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, before vaccine passports and myocarditis and “excess deaths” and the lab-leak hypothesis—perhaps the very first question to get sorted along hyperpartisan lines is whether the disease caused by the emerging virus was “like the flu,” whether it was an irritation to be dealt with through ordinary measures or a crisis that needed to be addressed with a full-society response.

Two years, 1 million deaths, and an alphabet soup of variants later, COVID-19 is more like the flu than it was at the outset—milder and less deadly than before, in the case of the Omicron variant and its descendants. And with Americans equipped with the cumulative immunity of millions of vaccinations and previous bouts with COVID, the disease is well into endemic status—meaning that, for the most part, we’re now treating it like we treat the flu, too.

What remains to be seen is what “like the flu” looks like when it comes to the ongoing effort to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus. In preparation for an ordinary flu season, vaccine developers lock in by early summer the recipe they’re going to roll out over the upcoming fall and winter. That’s similar to what the COVID-vaccine conversation looks like at the FDA right now, where regulators will meet late this month to discuss whether booster shots should be updated in expectation of a likely fall surge.

“It’s still a winter virus,” Paul Offit, a virologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The Dispatch. “If you look over the last two and a half years, you get your biggest peaks in November, December, January, February—that’s when the virus causes the most damage, the most likely to cause hospitalization, intensive care unit admission, death.”

No American, no matter how COVID-conscious, has received a vaccine specifically keyed to thwart the Omicron variant and its ugly stepchildren—the vaccines currently in circulation are still based on earlier variants of the virus, judged sufficient for the current disease because of their ongoing ability to stave off serious illness and death.

While increased immunity is unreservedly a good thing, one side effect is the pressure it puts on the virus to mutate more quickly—making it difficult for scientists to predict whether pharmaceutical companies should hasten to market a new variant-specific booster vaccine or continue to rely on the tried-and-true versions. Furthermore, it isn’t just that we don’t know how the virus will look in a few months—we also don’t yet have a great sense of how our own immunity is likely to fare over time even in a hypothetical environment where the virus itself remained unchanged.

These questions will play a significant role not only in shaping what the COVID vaccine picture is likely to look like this fall, but also to what extent regular boosters will be a part of regular life in years to come, like the annual flu shot.

“We’ve achieved the first thing we wanted to achieve—pandemic 101, save the health care system. We’ve done that,” Offit said. “Goal No. 2  is to have a highly protected population against severe illness, especially over the winter. And we’ll learn a lot this winter. We will. We’ll see. Will this winter look like what it looks like now—a lot of cases, but because we have a highly immune population, not a lot of deaths? Or, because memory immune response has faded after natural infection or vaccination or both, then you’re talking about the value of the yearly vaccine, at least for certain groups.”

Worth Your Time

  • There’s a lot in this story of a massive CIA leak: computer viruses, cloak and dagger trials, Nerf guns. It’s a look at the alleged leaker and his path to and through the CIA, but also at the agency’s failures. “Nestled west of Washington, D.C., amid the bland northern Virginia suburbs, are generic-looking office parks that hide secret government installations in plain sight,” Patrick Radden Keefe begins the New Yorker piece. “Employees in civilian dress get out of their cars, clutching their Starbucks, and disappear into the buildings. To the casual observer, they resemble anonymous corporate drones. In fact, they hold Top Secret clearances and work in defense and intelligence. One of these buildings, at an address that is itself a secret, houses the cyberintelligence division of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

  • We’ll give you three guesses who this is about: “A con man, a cancer, Hitler. Did people speak about even Richard Nixon in this way?” If you guessed Steve Bannon, that’s concerning, and you’re ready for this profile. “Bannon’s the guy with a perpetual meta-motive, always working an angle,” Jennifer Senior writes for The Atlantic. “He’s extremely skilled at getting others to do what he wants them to do. He speaks openly, almost exuberantly, about his talent for thought-puppetry. … No one disputes that Bannon is very smart. He sweeps in information quickly, has a file-cabinet memory, can keep multiple tabs open in his brain. It’s how he uses his brain that horrifies people—and I’m talking not just about Democrats, but about many of his former colleagues, who see in him a disordered, nefarious kind of brilliance.”

  • After all the fuss over the suspension and reinstatement of Ilya Shapiro at Georgetown Law—he quit. He explains why at the Wall Street Journal. “It’s all well and good to adopt strong free-speech policies, but it’s not enough if university administrators aren’t willing to stand up to those who demand censorship,” Shapiro writes, after detailing a still-weak free speech policy. “And the problem isn’t limited to cowardly administrators. Proliferating [Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action]-style offices enforce an orthodoxy that stifles intellectual diversity, undermines equal opportunity, and excludes dissenting voices. Even the dean of an elite law school bucks these bureaucrats at his peril. What Georgetown subjected me to, what it would be subjecting me to if I stayed, is a heckler’s veto.”

Presented Without Comment

 

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight.Steve and David will tackle a question we hear a lot: Is the country unraveling? With the contentious Jan. 6 committee hearings, diminishing faith in elections, a spate of mass shootings—public anger seems to be as prevalent as at any time in recent memory. Is it? Why?  And what will happen if the country heads into a recession?  Tune in at 8 p.m. ET.

  • You’ve heard of hot vax summer—now get ready for hot nerd summer. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a rule requiring publicly traded companies to share a lot of information about their climate activities. It’s a bid for more transparency and, Chris Stirewalt argues, more likely to squash new companies than reform industry heavyweights.

  • On the site today, Harvest takes an early look at the Senate race for Wisconsin. Incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson faces no primary challenge, but he is vulnerable in the general election. With the January 6 committee hearings coming up this week, Jacob Becker offers a history lesson in the dangers of reckless rhetoric and says the best analogy to the events of that day is not 1776 but 1793..

Let Us Know

How are you thinking about COVID as we head into summer? Are you still taking any precautions? If so, which ones? Or are you just living life?

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.