THE Labour council leaders who sat down with George Osborne today to sign "historic" devolution deals for the North-East bore the looks of men who were uncomfortably over a barrel.

A Conservative Government, emboldened by a second election victory and the chaos into which the Labour Party has descended, is calling all the shots. Sign the deals, agree to elected mayors, or miss out on devolved powers and the extra cash on offer – that's what it boils down to.

The Labour council chiefs are in a Catch 22. They don't want elected mayors and they certainly don't want to be party to the further public sector cuts which are on the way, but they also don't want to be left with nothing.

Instead of a devolution celebration, we, therefore, have a most unsatisfactory "deal or no deal" squabble. Mr Osborne talks of history being made and the "unstoppable momentum" of the Northern Powerhouse, while the council leaders insist that nothing is concrete yet.

They say the "deals" are no more than "proposed agreements" and will only be sealed if there is public support and "fair funding" for the region in November's Comprehensive Spending Review.

So how will that public support be demonstrated? And how will "fair funding" be defined? The truth, of course, is that the Labour leaders really are over a barrel and, in their hearts, they know they will have to like it or lump it.

The North-East and Tees Valley have been granted a combined £45m a year over 30 years as part of the devolution deals. In the context of the challenges facing the region – challenges which have been made far worse by the loss of 1,700 steel industry wages worth £80m a year to the Tees Valley economy – it is not a great deal.

But it is a start and we have to make the most of it.