It looks as if AstraZeneca is safe, for now, but the attempted takeover by Pfizer begs some important questions about our politicians relations with big business. This came to a head as I watched MPs trying to hold these mega companies to account last week.
Down the corridor they came for all the world like prize fighters heading for the ring. Large security men with ear pieces and stern expressions escorted the Pfizer representatives into the Commons committee hearing.
Pfizer make Viagra and it shows. AstraZeneca’s representatives entrance was equally impressive. Big Pharma was on display but Andrew Miller was ready for them. He’s the MP for Ellesmere Port, close to Cheshire’s chemical industry and he was once a lab technician.
Early in the hearing Ian C Read, CEO of Pfizer, (all top American executives have a middle letter) admitted there would be less scientists if the takeover went ahead.
“Shouldn’t there be more not less scientists?” asked Mr Miller.
Ian C Read said he didn’t know enough about AZ to answer that.
“You knew enough to make a £50bn bid” retorted the former lab technician.
And so it went on. MPs in the committee room asking detailed questions of Pfizer and Astra Zeneca executives followed by the Science Minister “two brains” David Willetts. The day before the hearing the Business Secretary, Vince The Cable, had hinted darkly that public interest legislation might be strengthened to protect vital British industries. Two Brains kept telling MPs he couldn’t go further than his master.
Exasperated a bearded West country Liberal Democrat David Heath put the killer question. “If the takeover goes through and promises are broken, there is nothing the government can do about it is there?”. Wlliett’s called that “an excessively bleak view” , in other words no.
That isn’t entirely true. I met David Rutley outside the committee room. We both agreed that we couldn’t get too worked up about poor little Astra Zeneca getting gobbled up by Pfizer after they took most of their work away from Alderley Park to Cambridge. Nevertheless Rutley pointed to research and development grants that are in the government’s gift. He wanted some sabre rattling from Vince The Cable.
As it is it looks as if AZ have seen off the takeover for six months at least. They still employ 700 staff at Alderley Park and the worst effects of their moving the rest of their business to Cambridge has been mitigated by the takeover of Alderley Park by Manchester Sciences Parks. AZ are putting £5m into a fund to nurture talent on the site.
Alderley Park is to become a campus for bioscience companies and we must hope some brilliant discoveries are made there because that is the way to protect our science excellence.
Although they mean well our national politicians, of all parties, believe in Britain being an open country to foreign investment and ownership. They will always make the right noises when these takeovers arise but the truth is we will have to take the rough (Kraft /Cadbury) with the smooth (TataTata/JLR).