Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Playing politics over Big Pharma

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The Prime Minister has accused Ed Miliband of “playing politics” over the putative Pfizer takeover of AstraZeneca. It isn’t clear what distinguishes “playing” politics from statesmanship, other than “I do the second and my opponent does the first.” Today it broadly meant: “We’re struggling to balance our free market beliefs with concern that this takeover could backfire on us, so please shut up.” Which, as he knows, having been one himself, is not the Opposition leader’s job.

That said, the exchanges started unusually, with Miliband asking Cameron not about a Government policy but one of his own, on rent controls. Or not rent controls. For a moment you wondered wildly whether – despite this week telling the Evening Standard that he had “much more intellectual self-confidence” – Miliband was hoping Cameron would clarify for him which it was. In fact he pressed Cameron to adopt three-year tenancies with “predictable rent increases”. But this soon got lost in the hunt for TV soundbites. Miliband: “Why has the Conservative Party given up on millions of people who are Generation Rent?” Cameron: “The problem with rent controls is their policies are for rent, their candidates are for rent and their leader is for rent.” (In a slip of the tongue, he actually said the candidates were “for lent”, implying that while the policies and Miliband were creatures of Unite, Labour candidates were all blameless ascetics.)

Miliband just got the better of the Pfizer spat, having a plan – to expose the takeover to a public interest test – which Cameron wouldn’t rule in or out. Although this was too complicated for planet soundbite, Miliband was offering to help through the necessary secondary legislation, the Blair government having, in a bout of free-market euphoria, made it impossible to veto mergers on grounds other than national security. As Cameron pointed out, though he didn’t put it like that.

Meanwhile when Tory Zac Goldsmith warned that “misuse of antibiotics” risked returning us to an era “where routine operations carry a grave risk of death”, Cameron agreed this was “extremely serious” adding that “one problem is that the way research is done currently by pharmaceutical companies is not necessarily bringing forward new antibiotics in the way that we need….”

Funny that. One moment, big pharma is the cutting edge of the global life sciences race. And the next it’s sending us back to the infection-ridden 19th century.