SIR Richard Branson is not the principal buyer of Northern Rock, Labour warned yesterday - as controversy over the sale continued to rage.

The Opposition piled pressure on the government by highlighting how billionaire Wall Street investor Wilbur Ross was injecting five times as much money as the Virgin Group.

Yet Mr Ross was not even mentioned in the press release issued to announce the £747m sale of the Gosforth-based lender to Virgin Money, fronted by the popular Sir Richard.

But, making a Commons statement, treasury minister Mark Hoban said his hand was forced by a secret agreement Labour made with Brussels, requiring Northern Rock to be sold before the end of 2013.

And he pointed to the "cheers" of staff in Gosforth last week as evidence for it being "the best deal for Northern Rock and the North-East".

Mr Hoban, who was born in County Durham, said: "They want an end to the uncertainty that has hung over this bank for the last four years - and we delivered that for them. As one of them said to me, 'It's like an early Christmas present'"

However, Labour made a series of criticisms of the deal, including: * The government's failure to ask the European Commission for an extension beyond 2013, on the grounds that economic turmoil meant "circumstances had changed."

* The use of £250m of Northern Rock's own money to part-finance the sale, which meant "the assets of this company are being stripped away".

* Mr Ross's statement that he would "sell out a few years down the road for 1.5 times book value" - arguing that suggested the Treasury was selling "prematurely and at the wrong price".

* The absence of any "contractual guarantees" that branches or jobs will be retained.

* The absence of any guarantee that the Northern Rock Foundation, the bank's charity arm, will continue beyond 2013.

Phil Wilson, the Sedgefield MP, said: "I want to know its future after that date. I was disappointed to hear the minister has not undertaken an impact assessment on jobs in the voluntary sector if the Foundation is closed."

In reply, Mr Hoban ducked the "asset-stripping" accusation and the question of whether Britain had applied for a post-2013 extension - and said the future of the Northern Rock Foundation was "a matter for Virgin Money".

Pointing to the 2103 deadline, he told MPs: "This, combined with the fact the bank is likely to be loss-making well into 2012, means a sale to Virgin Money is the best option measured against taxpayer value for money."

The sale price could rise to around £1bn with add-ons, but that would still be £400m short of the £1.4bn state bail-out, when Labour nationalised the bank in 2008.

Mr Hoban also insisted there had been no point waiting for a "white knight" to mutualise Northern Rock, adding: "No workable plans were put forward."