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Friends and enemies in the North

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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After well over a week there is still, tonight, no agreement between the leaders of Greater Manchester - a conurbation of nearly three million people - and government ministers.

Clearly, this is more than a little local difficulty. Lives and jobs are at stake.

If you live in the area and are desperate to know what your life is going to look like in the next few weeks, I'm afraid that a running conflict between Downing Street and the leaders where you live mean you can't be sure yet.

This evening, the two sides can't even agree on what they actually discussed today.

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Believe the local leaders and this morning there seemed to be hope in the air. Officials from central government had mooted the possibility of a hardship fund to help support low paid workers who stand to lose out if businesses close their doors under tighter restrictions.

The message local leaders took from their meeting was that, while the Treasury is adamant they are not going to extend their national furlough scheme that has supported millions of wages any further - nor increase the level of cash available from its replacement, the Job Support Scheme - Westminster might sign off extra money that could be spent that way, if local politicians saw fit.

There was no concrete agreement on the numbers, but sources in Greater Manchester suggest the cost of supporting those who need the extra help comes in at around £15m a month.

After that call, the consensus among North West leaders was moving in the direction of signing on the dotted line, with another call planned with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick for the afternoon.

But rather than ushering in a new spirit of cooperation, that meeting went south.

'Tit for tat'

There was no mention of the hardship fund that had, according to one side, been discussed.

And the meeting is said to have broken up abruptly, with no agreement and a "surreal" sudden end, one attendee told me.

Since then, Andy Burnham, who proclaimed he would "stand firm" on the steps of Manchester's Central Library last week, has written to the prime minister, expressing frustration the offer that seemed to be on the table has miraculously disappeared.

But on the other side, the government has gone on the record to say North West's leaders are mistaken to think such a deal was ever on the table.

There's even a dispute over exactly how the hospital statistics are being interpreted.

The tit for tat in this row of course matters much less than the impact on the area and those who live there, contemplating more uncertainty as each day goes on.

'Risky fight'

Government sources say the situation has to be brought to a resolution - a hint that the tighter restrictions could soon be imposed.

And the ministers' move to a regional, rather than a national, approach would always bring some tensions.

But it is a pretty extraordinary and risky political fight, perhaps for both sides.

With more parts of the country in talks, it is a conflict the government would rather not repeat.

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