To be fair, Hunt measured his words, emphasising the independence of the CMA and pointing out that the US Federal Trade Commission is trying to block the deal too. “When it comes to Microsoft,” Hunt told the British Chambers of Commerce annual conference yesterday, “there was a merger between two American companies that the US regulator is seeking to block, and the UK regulator took the same view”. He also said that he believed one of the reasons “companies like Microsoft and Google” want to invest in the UK is because it has “independent regulators that are not controlled by politicians”.
But it was at that point the finger-wagging began. “I would not want to undermine [the CMA’s independence] at all, but I do think it’s important all our regulators understand their wider responsibilities for economic growth”.
It’s easy to read an implication in that statement: With senior figures like PM Rishi Sunak and Hunt himself hyping up the post-Brexit UK as “the next Silicon Valley,” the government would probably rather the nation’s antitrust regulator not get in the habit of vexing the world’s tech titans, especially when the European Union goes and approves the deals the CMA rejects, prompting key business figures like Microsoft’s Brad Smith to loudly declare that “the European Union is a more attractive place to start a business than the United Kingdom”.
Hunt’s statement echoes concerns voiced by MPs earlier this week, when CMA bosses were asked if they “consider the implications of [their] decisions … for the UK’s international reputation as a place to do business”. While it would be an overstatement to say the government and the CMA are at loggerheads over the decision, it certainly seems like MPs and cabinet members are concerned about the impact the block will have on corporations’ willingness to do business in the UK, particularly given that the EU’s acceptance of Microsoft’s offered remedies has the UK looking like a black sheep in the international community right now.
It’ll be interesting to see how and if this criticism (and the moves of other national regulators) impact the process of Microsoft and Activision’s appeal of the CMA decision. In theory, that appeal is only meant to be about whether the CMA followed the proper decision-making procedure when it made its judgement—the actual merit of the decision itself isn’t meant to be under consideration—but it’s hard to imagine pressure from the government and other antitrust enforcers having no effect at all. It’ll be a long time till we find out either way.