Britain's Business Secretary Vince Cable said late on Sunday that the bid by Pfizer Inc for AstraZeneca Plc raised questions of ''overriding national interest'', as the opposition Labour Party stepped up its campaign against the proposed takeover.
Cable's statement to the media came after Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Prime Minister David Cameron earlier in the day of promoting Pfizer's bid for London-based AstraZeneca. Cable told reporters that reviewing rules on intervening in takeovers on public interest grounds was an option that the government was looking at.
Parliament's business, innovation and skills committee will meet later today to discuss whether to summon Pfizer executives.
Pfizer chairman Adrian Bailey, a member of Miliband's Labour Party, told reporters on 29 April that the bid needed to be ''scrutinized very carefully.''
Political attitudes to the bid are hardening less than three weeks before local and European elections even after AstraZeneca's board rejected Pfizer's £63.1 billion ($106.5 billion) sweetened offer on 2 May (See: AstraZeneca rejects Pfizer's revised $106 billion offer).
''The British competition merger regime is non-political in the way it is applied, I think that's valued in that Britain is open in that respect,'' said Cable, a member of Cameron's Liberal Democratic coalition partner. ''But there is an important national interest here that we have got to safeguard the protection of jobs and investment and particularly high technology research in pharmaceuticals.''
Cable was speaking hours after Miliband told the BBC's ''Andrew Marr'' program that Cameron was in ''totally the wrong place'' on the bid by New York-based Pfizer. ''He has become a cheerleader for Pfizer's takeover when instead he should be championing AstraZeneca's long-term plan,'' Miliband said.
By making the battle over the future of the UK's second-biggest drugmaker a political issue, Miliband increases the pressure on Pfizer to offer stronger guarantees about its commitment to AstraZeneca's British operations, according to one report.
The prime minister's office rejected the Labour leader's comments, saying that it was neutral on the proposed bid and trying to ensure that jobs and investment in British science were protected.
After a series of meetings with British ministers and officials, Pfizer chief executive officer Ian Read wrote to Cameron on 2 May to keep at least 20 per cent of the combined company's research and development workforce in the UK for at least five years, and to retain ''substantial'' manufacturing facilities at AstraZeneca's site in Macclesfield.
The prime minister responded that day by describing these as ''robust assurances,'' and saying that ''any merger is a decision for both companies.''
Miliband, in contrast, told the BBC that Pfizer's promises were ''pretty weak.'' Cable said that ''obviously there is a lot of small print to study the question about how these obligations are binding.''