Bernard Jenkin, a former defence spokesman for the Conservative party, has become the most senior figure in Westminster to voice concerns about the impact of the BAE-EADS merger on relations between Britain and the US.
Mr Jenkin, a respected figure on the right of the party, said he did not want the Americans to “call the shots” over the British defence industry but they ought to be its “partner of choice”.
“My instincts are that this will create significant difficulties if we want to have bilateral defence programmes with the Americans in future,” he told the FT. “When we operate with them we get by far the best support.”
Mr Jenkin and other Tory MPs believe that a counter-offer is likely to emerge from a major US defence company such as Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman.
Amid a growing mood of unease about the deal on the Tory back benches, Philip Hammond, defence secretary, said the government would only approve the deal if it was in the UK’s national interest.
“We will want to be reassured not just about the security implications but about the implications for the future allocation of work to the UK,” he said. Mr Hammond said he was realistic, however, that BAE Systems faced major challenges as a standalone company.
Mr Jenkin said the paramount concern was Britain’s “onshore capability”, the ability to get hold of essential equipment and spare parts at short notice.
The deal would have to be closely watched to ensure that Britain retained control over BAE’s technology in key areas, he said. “We have an enormous amount of intellectual property in the defence sphere, global leadership, and we need to retain that,” he said.
Ben Wallace, another Tory MP, called for caution over the deal, warning that EADS was making a “grab” for BAE’s US business but could make deep cuts to its UK workforce.
It was essential to clarify whether Britain’s “very important defence relationship with the US” was threatened or strengthened by the merger, said Mr Wallce.
“When they start identifying overlaps, what I don’t want to see is the French sweeping in and saying we will just get rid of the British workforce – such as my constituents – because it is easier to do.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former defence secretary, struck a more supportive note by saying that Britain would retain considerable sway in the merged company – whereas a US takeover of BAE could see it absorbed without trace.
“I would be very supportive of a US-UK relationship, that is our natural partner, but in this area I would be concerned because of the disparate size of the two parties,” he told the FT. “EADS is bigger than BAE but not that much bigger.”
Sir Malcolm also pointed out that France and the UK had strong shared interests in the defence arena despite the “occasional rhetoric”.
The Unite union has criticised a lack of consultation and is pressing for a full study of the social and economic implications of the deal.