Last updated: February 2, 2011 9:37 pm

Cameron under fire over Pfizer closure

David Cameron was urged by Labour to “get a grip” on the country’s economy and come up with a credible growth strategy, as Westminster resounded with recriminations over Pfizer’s decision to close its research centre in Kent.

Mr Cameron admitted the closure of the US drug company’s research and development operations in Sandwich was “depressing” and vowed to do everything possible to save some of the 2,400 jobs under threat, while transforming the site into a life-science campus.

The Pfizer decision came at a moment when Mr Cameron’s government is facing its heaviest criticism yet over its stewardship of the economy, following data suggesting growth went into reverse in the final quarter of 2010.

The closure has fuelled Labour claims that the coalition has no industrial strategy.

Mr Cameron told the Commons that he had spoken to the company, which had reassured him that the decision was not a vote of no-confidence in either British science or the UK as a place to do business.

“There is no doubt that the decision is being taken not because of some UK-based issue, but because the company has decided to exit some whole areas of endeavour, like allergies and respiratory diseases,” he said.

George Freeman, a Tory MP and former biomedical executive, said: “We should not look at this like a 1970s-style factory closure but as an opportunity to recycle value in Sandwich into new companies.”

But Declan Doogan, the former head of worldwide development at Pfizer who now runs a US biotech company, doubted whether the purpose-built facility could be easily turned to another use: “It’s an incredibly complex building and will have very high operating costs.”

Labour said Mr Cameron had been “snubbed” by Pfizer and that the coalition’s inability to stave off the closure was indicative of a government with “no strategy for growth”.

John Denham, Labour’s business spokesman, took up criticisms made by Sir Richard Lambert, outgoing head of the CBI, in criticising Vince Cable’s business department. “Where there should be action, there’s a talking shop,” he said.

Mr Denham said the business secretary had wasted nine months in power, with policy decisions – including a new cap on migration and the scrapping of regional development agencies – hobbling business.

Mr Cable and other ministers have been buoyed by upbeat data this week on manufacturing and are hoping today for news of growth in services.

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