Corbyn ally Richard Leonard ousted as Scottish Labour leader four months before Holyrood election

Simon Johnson
·6-min read
Richard Leonard has quit as Scottish Labour leader - PA
Richard Leonard has quit as Scottish Labour leader - PA

Richard Leonard has been ousted as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in a coup organised with the backing of Sir Keir Starmer, a number of former senior ministers and a group of influential union leaders.

Mr Leonard was a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn, and his ‘scalp’ is another clear sign that Sir Keir is determined to extinguish his predecessor’s influence and that of his hard-Left supporters at the top of Labour.

In a statement announcing his sudden resignation - less than four months before the Holyrood election - he said constant speculation about his position had become a "distraction" for the party.

Mr Leonard said he had "thought long and hard" over Christmas over whether he should continue and concluded it was in the party's "best interests" that he go after three years in post. He later admitted he had been unable to unite the party's warring factions.

Sir Keir, the UK Labour leader, paid tribute to Mr Leonard for leading the party "through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic."

But the Telegraph understands that party and trade union bosses decided to act, with Labour still trailing badly in the opinion polls and on course to lose more seats at Holyrood.

His departure is expected to be a boost for the Union as a weak Scottish Labour would help the SNP win more Centre-Left votes, boosting Nicola Sturgeon's hopes of a majority and a second independence referendum.

One senior Labour source: “Of course Sir Keir was behind this but his hands will be clean." Mr Leonard is expected to be replaced by a moderate more in line with Sir Keir's vision for the party, with Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar the clear frontrunner.

The powerful GMB union, which refused to throw its weight behind a failed moderate coup last September, was said to have played a central role in pushing him out.

His resignation also followed a conference call involving senior party figures and potential donors, who are understood to have said that they would not back Labour while Mr Leonard remained in post.

Neil Findlay, a Left-wing MSP and close ally of Mr Leonard and Mr Corbyn, tweeted: "Looks like those who have led a three-year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick."

Although they’ve mostly stayed quiet, many Labour grandees - part of the successive Blair and Brown governments - were very concerned about the party facing oblivion at the election.

Asked if Gordon Brown would have been a supporter of the moves to persuade Mr Leonard to go, a former Labour minister said: “He wouldn’t have been a million miles away."

Senior party figures want Mr Sarwar to be quickly crowned the new leader with so little time before the election. However, Monica Lennon, the party's health spokesman at Holyrood, was also being touted for the role.

Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader and another eminent moderate, is understood not to be interested in putting her name forward for the role permanently.

Whoever succeeds Mr Leonard takes over a party languishing in third place at Holyrood and polling at only 18 per cent.

Mr Leonard, a Yorkshire-born former union official has been widely criticised for having made no impact with the public in his three-year tenure.

His internal opponents pointed to disappointing results at the last General Election, when Labour lost six of its seven Scottish MPs, and the European elections which saw Labour come fifth in Scotland, only narrowly ahead of the Scottish Greens.

Under a deal to ease his departure, it is understood Mr Leonard was promised the top place on the party's Central Scotland list, making it highly likely he will win re-election in May under Holyrood's complicated system of proportional representation.

Referring to the pandemic in his resignation statement, Mr Leonard said: "I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it.

"I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour's message across. This has become a distraction."

The Central Scotland MSP later told Times Radio: "I accept that I've been unable to successfully win over enough people back to support the Labour Party. And, you know, I have to reflect on some of the reasons for that and and accept that some of those lie at my own door."

Sir Keir said Mr Leonard should be "very proud" of his achievements. He said: "I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in."

But a senior Shadow Cabinet source said: "He appears pretty hopeless so I'm not surprised he's gone."

A senior Labour source added: "The people who did the deed were GMB and Usdaw. Usdaw and the GMB were exasperated with Richard.

"He wrote an article earlier on in which he claimed Nicola should have opened the pubs in the face of the lockdown. That exasperated them."

Although the insider denied that Sir Keir had "manoeuvred" Mr Leonard's downfall, they said the Corbyn ally "knew he had nothing left" after the two unions pulled their support.

They said that Mr Sarwar, whom Mr Leonard defeated in the 2017 leadership contest, was the "modern face of Scotland."

Mr Sarwar yesterday paid tribute to Mr Leonard, tweeting: "He is Labour to his core, and we are all grateful for his service." However, Mr Findlay responded: "Oh spare us please..."