OTTAWA - Jack Layton says Stephen Harper just doesn't seem to get how bad the unemployment situation is - and it could cost the prime minister his job.

The NDP leader emerged from a meeting with Harper on Tuesday, strongly hinting he would back any attempt to bring down the minority Conservative government this fall.

Layton said the pair had a "lively debate," but there was no sign Harper is willing to compromise on "fundamental issues" such as job creation, infrastructure funding, and employment insurance reform.

"It struck me that he doesn't really seem to understand - or be willing to act if he does understand - the depth of the unemployment situation and how it continues to get worse, and the urgency of an additional stimulus package to help kick start job creation."

Layton refused to say how the NDP would vote if the Liberals introduce a non-confidence motion after Parliament resumes next month, but noted that his party has never propped up the Tories.

"The NDP would be the least likely of the political parties to support the Conservatives in office because we have very fundamental differences with the direction they're taking the country," he said.

"As of today's meeting I can't say that I feel any optimism that they're going to change direction."

Specifically, Layton said Harper rejected his call to drop the requirement that municipalities match federal funds for infrastructure projects - something many communities can't afford.

The meeting was just the first tango in a series of political dances that could decide whether there will be a fall election. Layton is to meet with his fellow opposition leaders before the House of Commons resumes Sept. 14. It's unclear if Harper will do the same.

Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas described the meeting as "a courtesy" and downplayed the notion the two sides could ever strike an accommodation, even on individual pieces of legislation.

He said the government is focused on implementing the economic action plan from last winter's budget which, he noted, the NDP has consistently opposed.

And he raised the spectre of the three opposition parties banding together in another bid to form a coalition government - a massively unpopular ploy that backfired on the Liberals last fall.

"It was also clear to us that the NDP prefers and wants to work with the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois," Soudas said.

"Mr. Layton probably asked for this meeting so that he can pretend he's not working with his coalition partners but the reality is that he is."

Although he initially endorsed the coalition, Michael Ignatieff distanced himself from the idea shortly after taking over the Liberal leadership last December. But he's since said he's open to "arrangements" with other parties that would allow the Liberals to form government.

Ignatieff teetered last June on the brink of defeating the government, but he and Harper struck an 11th-hour deal to study changes to Employment Insurance, removing the threat of a summer election.

Conservatives and Liberals have since met several times, but have failed to bridge their differences over EI.

Senior Liberal insiders expect Ignatieff will refuse to prop up the government any longer once Parliament resumes.

Layton also used the meeting with Harper to raise recent high-profile cases of Canadians who have been stranded abroad. He said he called on the prime minister to take action to ensure Canadians "can count on the government" to help get them home.

Suaad Hagi Mohamud, a Somali-born Canadian, was stranded for months in Kenya because Canadian officials thought she was an impostor. She was eventually able to return home after DNA tests proved her identity.

Abdihakim Mohamed, another Somali-Canadian, has been stranded in Kenya for three years under similar circumstances and is still waiting for permission to return.

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