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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: When it comes to Big Pharma, money talks


One of many things it’s hard to pin down about Ian Read is his accent, best described as “global Anglophone”. While his idioms are North American (It was no good seeing the mighty Pfizer’s takeover of Wyeth as a “cookie cutter” for an AstraZeneca merger, he told MPs) the speech tunes veer between quasi-Australian, mid-Atlantic, and a kind of cockney drawl. Missing, oddly, is any trace of his native Scotland.

But when you’re Big Pharma incarnate, intent on an M&A which will make you even Bigger Pharma, your reach is pretty transnational. Impassive behind his rimless glasses, occasionally allowing himself a notably uninfectious smile, he made you feel this was a company with which mere politicians tangle at their peril.

The Swedish Prime Minister’s complaint about broken promises and “negative consequences” of the company’s arrival in his country arose from his “misunderstanding of the facts”, Read explained. And senior US Democrat Carl Levin, who had opposed corporations shifting their domicile to lower tax jurisdictions like the UK, was “just one senator”, he said, rather as if he had been personally assured by every other Congress member that they would not obstruct him.

To its credit, the Committee was not intimidated. The MPs repeatedly pressed him, in vain. On what his promise that “20 per cent” of the company’s worldwide R&D force staying in the UK would mean in numbers of actual, er, people. It would be “premature” to give a figure, he explained. Invited by the Labour chairman Adrian Bailey to rebut claims that Pfizer was a “praying mantis” and a “shark that needed feeding” Read unveiled to MPs the “four principles” he had established for the company, The last of which —“a culture of ownership” – broke down into a snappily memorable acrostic, Own the business… Win the business (“and the ‘N’ may you surprise you” he said with perfect accuracy): No jerks! Impact. Trust. Get it? OWN IT.

Pursuing this, Tory Brian Binley – after telling Read: “What you’ve said is a lot of sales talk and very short on facts” – said he knew the Pfizer CEO carried a gold coin inscribed with “Straight Talk” on one side and “Own it” on the other. And that today Read seemed more focused on Ownership (presumably of AstraZeneca) than Straight Talk. This seemed like a deranged fantasy of Binley’s. But in fact he had merely done his homework, Read unblushingly produced the actual coin for the surprised MPs. 

By now we were lost in the mist-enshrouded peaks of higher capitalism. Read explained that the Takeover Panel could take the company to High Court at any point in the next five years, if it judged it to have broken its (heavily qualified) guarantees on the merger. Could he cite any prior examples of when this had actually happened, the Tory Robin Walker politely asked him? No, he couldn’t. It was probably the day’s killer question.