Ignore, for the moment, the rights and wrongs of Pfizer's attempt to buyAstraZeneca. This column's view was made clear last week: the US group is untrustworthy, its proposal rests on a dubious tax arbitrage and UK interests are threatened. In short, the deal stinks. But will it happen?
A hard-headed assessment a week ago might have put the probability at 90%. Might prevails nine times out of 10, even when national tempers are inflamed.
A week on, though, the story looks less simple. Cameron and his cabinet are suddenly all over the place. The prime minister now declares himself "not satisfied" with the assurances and wants more. Business secretary Vince Cable talks vaguely about a public interest test. Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband has woken up, understood there is a threat to UK science and is arguing (rightly) for just such a public interest investigation.
The scientists are up in arms. Sir David Barnes, former AstraZeneca boss, caught the mood best when he called Pfizer a "praying mantis" on account of its grim record of cutting research and development after acquisitions. Sir Richard Sykes, former GlaxoSmithKline boss, cuts a lonely figure as a supporter of the bid. Swedish politicians talk bitterly about Pfizer's broken promises after buying Pharmacia.
US politicians are also unhappy as they contemplate the threat to the US tax system if companies follow Pfizer's plan to move its tax domicile to the UK via a so-called "inversion". The US rules allow such a soft-shoe shuffle on tax if shareholders in the non-US company end up with at least 20% of the new entity. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate finance committee, wants to raise the bar to 50% immediately. "Corporations must understand that they won't profit from abandoning the US," he wrote in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The tax inversion, though, is a "key driver" of Read's pitch to AstraZeneca.
But Read's biggest problem is the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the adventure among his own shareholders. By mid-afternoon on Friday, Pfizer's shares had fallen 7% since the proposal was published, meaning its £50 offer in cash and paper was now worth a shade under £48.It's a tangled web alright. And all of the main players seem more or less out of their depth.