Linklaters and Slaughters line up for regulatory showdown

Competition lawyers at Ashurst Morris Crisp, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May will have a key role in determining who wins the battle for troubled supermarket chain Safeway. The deal could also see Linklaters reunited with the Competition Commission's Denise Kingsmill, the firm's regulatory nemesis on the blocked Lloyds-Abbey National bid.

The deal is likely to be settled by competition issues. Insiders suggest that Morrisons' bid would be cleared at phase one by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). However, it is almost certain that rival bids from Wal-Mart and Sainsbury's will be referred to the Competition Commission as they would mean that just three players would hold power in the UK supermarket sector.

One insider said the Wal-Mart and Sainsbury's bids had just 40 per cent chances of clearance, even if they offered to divest a significant number of stores, although he conceded: “Once you get to the Competition Commission, it's a lottery.”

All three firms have appointed competition teams. First up for Linklaters is Michael Cutting, whose last contentious transaction was the blocked merger between Lloyds and Abbey National. Cutting was called in to replace Clifford Chance after the Lloyds deal was referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission.

Although Linklaters is Lloyds' usual corporate adviser, Clifford Chance got the brief because Linklat-ers was conflicted after advising Abbey National's rival suitor National Australia Bank. Cutting will not have fond memories of Kingsmill after the commission blocked Lloyds' bid, putting a stop to consolidation in the UK banking sector.

Competition Commission insiders predict that supermarket retail is a sector where Kingsmill would like her say. As part of the Lloyds investigation, she instigated the first internet-broadcast public hearing and a nightmare scenario for Linklaters or Slaughters in this case would be, no doubt, a full public hearing run by this people's champion.

One lawyers called the Abbey hearing, “Denise's kangaroo court”, but the Competition Commission's strong stance on Lloyds was welcomed by consumer rights groups.

Leading the competition team for Slaughters is Laura Carstensen, who last year took part in Kingsmill's investigation into why women in the professions have failed to break the glass ceiling. Although competition issues are likely to be less of a concern for Ashursts' client Morrisons, the firm has put in-house economist Matt Hughes on the deal; partner Nigel Parr will lead from the legal side.

Morrisons' medium-sized Bradford firm Gordons Cranswick has also retained a role. Morrison's investment bank ABN Amro insisted that the maverick supermarket owners get City representation, but the company also secured a continuing role for its usual advisers. It is understood that for cash-conscious Morrisons, price was a key consideration at the beauty parade that saw ABN Amro appoint Ashursts.