BACKGROUND This paper examines NHS secondary care contracting in England and Wales in a period which saw increasing policy divergence between the two systems. At face value, England was making greater use of market levers and utilising harder-edged service contracts incorporating financial penalties and incentives, while Wales was retreating from the 1990 s internal market and emphasising cooperation and flexibility in the contracting process. But there were also cross-border spill-overs involving common contracting technologies and management cultures that meant that differences in on-the-ground contracting practices might be smaller than headline policy differences suggested. METHODS The nature of real-world contracting behaviour was investigated by undertaking two qualitative case studies in England and two in Wales, each based on a local purchaser/provider network. The case studies involved ethnographic observations and interviews with staff in primary care trusts (PCTs) or local health boards (LHBs), NHS or Foundation trusts, and the overseeing Strategic Health Authority or NHS Wales regional office, as well as scrutiny of relevant documents. RESULTS Wider policy differences between the two NHS systems were reflected in differing contracting frameworks, involving regional commissioning in Wales and commissioning by either a PCT, or co-operating pair of PCTs in our English case studies, and also in different oversight arrangements by higher tiers of the service. However, long-term relationships and trust between purchasers and providers had an important role in both systems when the financial viability of organisations was at risk. In England, the study found examples where both PCTs and trusts relaxed contractual requirements to assist partners faced with deficits. In Wales, news of plans to end the purchaser/provider split meant a return to less precisely-specified block contracts and a renewed concern to build cooperation between LHB and trust staff. CONCLUSIONS The interdependency of local purchasers and providers fostered long-term relationships and co-operation that shaped contracting behaviour, just as much as the design of contracts and the presence or absence of contractual penalties and incentives. Although conflict and tensions between contracting partners sometimes surfaced in both the English and Welsh case studies, cooperative behaviour became crucial in times of trouble.