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The Morning Dispatch: Will Boris Escape Partygate Flak?
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The Morning Dispatch: Will Boris Escape Partygate Flak?

The British prime minister admits to paying a fine for breaking his own COVID regulations in 2020, but opposition to his leadership has softened following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Happy Wednesday! We admittedly do not own a baseball team and could be wrong, but seems like bad business for Cincinnati Reds President Nick Castellini to openly taunt fans who are upset the team traded away most of its star players this offseason to save money. 

“Well, where are you going to go?” he said in a radio interview yesterday, hinting that the alternative is relocating the team from Cincinnati. “Be careful what you ask for.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Hours after President Joe Biden referred to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as genocide for the first time, two U.S. officials told Reuters the White House is set to authorize another $750 million in military assistance for Ukraine, the latest disbursement of aid from the $14 billion pool Congress authorized last month. The package—which could be formally announced later today—is expected to include drones, howitzers, and equipment to protect against chemical attacks.

  • Speaking at a new spaceport alongside Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared peace talks with Ukraine had reached a “dead end” and, without evidence, accused the United Kingdom of helping Ukraine stage the mass civilian atrocities in Bucha. Putin reiterated that Russia’s “military operation” would continue “until its full completion,” but outlined a more limited war aim—control of the Donbas region, not all of Ukraine—than he had previously.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased 1.2 percent in March, and 8.5 percent year-over-year—the fastest rate of annual inflation the United States has seen since December 1981. 

  • At least 10 people were wounded Tuesday morning when a gunman opened fire inside a subway train car in Brooklyn, New York after setting off multiple smoke grenades. Officials said a motive for the attack has not yet been determined, and its perpetrator remains at large. Authorities are offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a man police have identified as a “person of interest” in the case.

  • New York Lieutenant Gov. Brian Benjamin resigned on Tuesday after the Justice Department charged him with bribery and wire fraud. Benjamin—who pleaded not guilty—is accused of using his influence as a New York State senator to obtain a $50,000 state-funded grant for a real estate developer’s charity in exchange for that developer donating thousands of dollars to Benjamin’s political campaigns.

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Tuesday he was one of more than 50 people fined by London’s Metropolitan Police Department for breaches of COVID-19 regulations in relation to Downing Street’s “Partygate” scandal. He apologized for failing to observe “the very rules which the government I lead had introduced to protect the public,” but rejected renewed calls from opposition lawmakers to resign over the transgression.

  • Sri Lanka will default on its $51 billion in foreign debt, the latest development in a long-escalating financial crisis that has triggered food, fuel, and energy shortages in the country. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced in March he’ll seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund later this month along with loans from India and China. The IMF has already recommended Rajapaksa raise taxes and fuel prices, likely to be an unpopular move in a country with near-20 percent inflation.

  • In an effort to bring down prices at the pump, the Biden administration announced Tuesday the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a waiver allowing gas with 15 percent ethanol content (E15) to be sold nationwide from June 1 through September 15. Most U.S. gas contains 10 percent ethanol, and E15 is typically prohibited due to its polluting effects. The move is likely to have a limited effect, as the vast majority of gas stations don’t offer E15—and corn prices have also spiked along with oil after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law on Tuesday a bill criminalizing abortions in the state unless the procedure is deemed necessary to save the life of the mother. The legal viability of the law is heavily contingent on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, but if allowed to stand, doctors who violate the statute could face up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. 

Boris Johnson: Fined but Not (Yet) Fallen

(Photo by Ben Stansall-WPA Pool/Getty Images.)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid the piper on Tuesday—or at least paid the fine he was issued by London police for breaking his own COVID-19 lockdown rules by attending a Downing Street party in 2020. Police also fined Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Johnson’s wife, Carrie.

Metropolitan Police have issued dozens of fines to British government officials over what’s become known colloquially as “Partygate,” but authorities have not been disclosing the names of recipients. Nonetheless, Johnson admitted Tuesday he was among them. “I have paid the fine and I once again offer a full apology,” he said. “I understand the anger that many will feel that I myself fell short when it came to observing the very rules which the Government I lead had introduced to protect the public, and I accept in all sincerity that people had a right to expect better.”

The fine Johnson announced Tuesday covered just one party of more than a dozen held by Downing Street denizens in 2020 and first reported last November. Johnson refused to admit he broke the rules for weeks before accepting some responsibility—though he maintains he didn’t know about most gatherings beforehand and believed several were work-related events allowed under the restrictions. The “Partygate” scandal nearly toppled Johnson; reports in early February suggested as many as 20 lawmakers from his Conservative Party had written letters of no-confidence demanding new party leadership, inching toward the 54-letter threshold needed to trigger a no-confidence vote that could oust Johnson.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and Partygate seemed a lot more trivial in comparison. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross withdrew his no-confidence letter in March, arguing the invasion necessitated stable leadership. Even opposition leader Keir Starmer cut Johnson some slack. “Look, at the moment the prime minister is obviously concentrating on the job in hand,” he said on March 6. “We stand united as the United Kingdom on that issue.” 

Johnson and the United Kingdom have arguably been Ukraine’s strongest European ally throughout the crisis. Johnson insisted in a New York Times op-ed last month Putin’s “act of aggression must fail and be seen to fail.” The United Kingdom has sent Ukraine anti-tank weapons and missiles, sanctioned more than 1,000 people and businesses, hiked tariffs on Russian imports, sent hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid, and passed a new law to root out dirty Russian money in the U.K. Johnson even popped over to Kyiv last weekend to stroll through the street and meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has praised Johnson’s support. Johnson’s approval ratings were already returning from a low of 25 percent in January, according to Oupros polling, but post-invasion have crept up to about 30 percent.

But Tuesday’s fines snapped some opposition lawmakers out of their war-induced shows of unity. Starmer, for example, once again called on Johnson—and Sunak—to resign because they have “broken the law and repeatedly lied to the British public.” But this resumption of hostilities hasn’t yet extended to critics in Johnson’s own party, where high-level frustrations with the Tory leader have more or less dissolved. “It would destabilize the UK government when we need to be united in the face of Russian aggression and the murdering of innocent Ukrainians,” Ross—the Scottish Tory—said yesterday.

In addition to the newfound wartime goodwill, lawmakers may also be less inclined to punish Johnson for his COVID infractions because the virus itself has nowhere near the grip on British society that it once did. Johnson announced the end of self-isolation requirements and other COVID-19 rules in late February. That honeymoon may not last, though, as case counts have soared and the UK’s Office for National Statistics estimated 1 in 13 people in England had COVID-19 in early April. 

Johnson apologized Tuesday, claiming he was at his birthday party for less than 10 minutes and didn’t realize it was a rule violation. He didn’t suggest he plans to step down, though his party could rally after the Easter recess to kick him out of leadership. Ukraine or no, he’s still the first prime minister in decades to be charged with violating the law, and a former adviser claims Johnson lied when he told Parliament in January that he didn’t know the gatherings broke rules. A snap poll by Savanta ComRes Tuesday found that 61 percent of adults in the UK think Johnson should resign over Partygate—less than the 69 percent calling for his removal in January, but not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Partygate isn’t the only threat to Johnson’s power. Just like in the U.S., inflation has been rising faster than wages in the UK, triggering a “cost of living crisis” that has voters more worried about their wallets than catching COVID-19. The UK’s inflation hit 6.2 percent year-over-year inflation on the consumer price index in February, a 30-year high, while wages rose only 5.4 percent. More bad economic news could convince Johnson’s party it needs new leadership to win elections in May.

Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale predicted to Sky News that Johnson will get the boot before then. “For now the absolute priority has to be to deal with Ukraine and not to give Putin any crumb of comfort that the UK is going to be destabilized,” Gale said. “[But] there will come a time the PM will have to face this.”

Worth Your Time

  • Former President Donald Trump has already endorsed scores of 2022 Republican candidates, several of whom are likely to lose in either their primary election or the general. But even if every single one of them won, Trump’s decision to endorse at all may have been a strategic error. “[Trump is] a figure with whom almost every Republican candidate would like to identify to some degree. He could easily stand apart from the primaries in all these races and let essentially all the candidates claim him and thereby reinforce his dominance of the party,” Yuval Levin argues in National Review. “By choosing instead to endorse some candidates over others, he is choosing to narrow his reach and to constrain the meaning of Trumpism within the GOP. … Trump’s endorsements will tend to create more Republicans who aren’t anti-Trump and yet don’t feel like they are in his camp. And that includes not only voters and party officials but also politicians who will feel they don’t owe him anything.”

  • In his latest Atlantic piece, Derek Thompson outlines what he sees as the four main forces contributing to rising rates of depression among young people: Social-media use, a decline in socialization, exposure to more bad news, and modern parenting strategies. “The world is overwhelming, and an inescapably negative news cycle creates an atmosphere of existential gloom, not just for teens but also for their moms and dads. The more overwhelming the world feels to parents, the more they may try to bubble-wrap their kids with accommodations,” he writes. “Over time, this protective parenting style deprives children of the emotional resilience they need to handle the world’s stresses. Childhood becomes more insular: Time spent with friends, driving, dating, and working summer jobs all decline. College pressures skyrocket. Outwardly, teens are growing up slower; but online, they’re growing up faster. The Internet exposes teenagers not only to supportive friendships but also to bullying, threats, despairing conversations about mental health, and a slurry of unsolvable global problems—a carnival of negativity. Social media places in every teen’s pocket a quantified battle royal for scarce popularity that can displace hours of sleep and makes many teens, especially girls, feel worse about their body and life. Amplify these existing trends with a global pandemic and an unprecedented period of social isolation, and suddenly, the remarkable rise of teenage sadness doesn’t feel all that mysterious, does it?”

  • As inflation soars, the United States’ unemployment rate is on pace to hit a 50-year low. But the two phenomena aren’t symmetrical, Josh Barro argues in his Tuesday newsletter—the positive jobs numbers don’t counterbalance skyrocketing prices. “While the tight labor market was supposed to do two very good things, it actually only did one of them,” he writes. “The good thing it did was make it easier than usual to find work, especially for people on the margins of society who tend to have the most difficulty finding a job at all. That’s great. But the other thing a lot of people expected—I expected—was that a tight job situation would tend to force wages to rise faster than prices, with workers capturing a larger share of total economic output as income. And that’s not happening; the opposite is happening.”

Also Worth Your Time

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried died this week at 67 after a years-long battle with a rare type of muscular dystrophy. Perhaps best known for his distinct voice—think Iago from Aladdin or the Aflac duck—Gottfried was also certifiably hilarious. If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes to watch this classic appearance of his on Hollywood Squares

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thank you to the hundreds of you who joined us for Dispatch Live last night! We returned after a few weeks off, and—having ditched Vimeo for YouTube—our technical difficulties were a thing of the past. Sarah, Steve, and David were joined by pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson for a conversation about cancel culture, how conservatives should engage with media and entertainment that skew left, and whether David should quit Twitter. If you weren’t able to tune in, never fear: Dispatch members can rewatch the hour by clicking here.

  • If you want more reporting on yesterday’s Presented Without Comment about Rep. Kai Kahele of Hawaii’s lackluster attendance record, Haley’s latest Uphill is for you! “Despite skipping House work while citing the pandemic, Kahele has appeared at public events, press conferences, and meetings with local officials throughout the year,” she notes. “Needless to say, Kahele’s use of proxy voting isn’t what it was intended for.”

  • In this week’s Sweep (🔒), Sarah touches on a novel way for campaigns to spend donor money, the ongoing debate over the impending GOP wave, six states to keep an eye on in the leadup to November, and whether Republicans are better off with our without a defined midterm agenda. Plus: Andrew on Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s apparent invincibility.

  • David’s Tuesday French Press (🔒) focuses on journalists’ love-hate relationship with Twitter. “For the American cultural and political elite, Twitter is Walter White’s blue meth from Breaking Bad,” he writes. “It grants a unique high for a unique population, the instant access both to the information and feedback that so many of us crave. But once the addiction sets in, all too many of us become our worst selves—transmitting our insecure (or prideful) unedited thoughts into a platform full of people who are salivating to destroy reputations and earn fame.”

  • On today’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Sarah talks to Washington Post columnist Christine Emba about her new book, Rethinking Sex. What’s the cause of today’s sexual malaise? What should a new sexual ethic look like?

  • And on the Remnant, Jonah is joined by Dispatch contributor Klon Kitchen for a wide-ranging discussion about Russia’s information war in Ukraine, what else the United States can be doing to support Kyiv, why China’s COVID-19 statistics should be taken with mountains of salt, and what Putin’s war will mean for Taiwan.

Let Us Know

Should Boris Johnson resign over his role in Partygate, or are his backers right that the UK needs stable leadership as it responds to Russia invading Ukraine?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

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