What is the government’s stance on Pfizer’s takeover bid of AstraZeneca? Today the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked this – and his answer didn’t shed a great deal of light on the situation. He said the position was ‘active in engagement, with both companies in terms of the importance to the UK of R&D and the science base, with regard to the decision as to whether or not going ahead is the right thing to do for either company and their shareholders, is entirely a matter for the companies, their boards and their shareholders’.
But what if the takeover does turn out to damage jobs and the science base in this country? Would the government remain neutral on the deal in the way that the Prime Minister has suggested, and in the way that his spokesman suggests in the above quote? The spokesman responded:
‘Well, I would say that’s pretty much what I’ve just described in my opening answer in terms of as I say, in terms of assessing the potential link to jobs and the skills base to be very actively engaged in terms of what must be and is a decision for respective boards, entirely a matter for them and not something which the government is involved in.’
He added that the government was ‘making no apology that we want to engage very actively with both companies in terms of as I say the importance of R&D, of skills, of expanding the skills base in the UK, we will keep doing that, but as I said, what is a commercial decision between the shareholders, we believe that is for the shareholder and no-one else and we will continue making that point very clearly.’
This is a funny sort of active engagement. It’s less a rugby player in a scrum and more a spectator shouting a lot from the sidelines while realising he has no influence over the game. The government doesn’t want to interfere in the deal itself, but it wants to be seen to be making sure that Britain gets the best deal. Another nuance is that it doesn’t want to scare away foreign companies that it has tried hard to attract through a competitive tax regime and a world-renowned research base in a part of the world where researchers are keen to live and put down roots. But it also doesn’t want to give the impression that Britain is somehow a valley of assets that vulture-like companies can come along and strip. Its position isn’t clear, really, at all, and that leads to the government looking both meddling and powerless at once.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.