Richard Leonard has suddenly quit as Scottish Labour leader less than four months before the Holyrood election, saying speculation about his position had become a “distraction” for the party.
The close ally of Jeremy Corbyn resigned with immediate effect after stating he had “thought long and hard” over Christmas over whether he should continue.
In a statement that surprised Holyrood, the Left-winger said he had concluded it was in the party’s “best interests” that he go after three years in post.
Sir Keir Starmer, the UK party 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.”
However, the timing of Mr Leonard’s departure triggered speculation he was pushed amid concern the party was on course to be trounced in May’s election.
He is expected to be replaced by a moderate more in line with Sir Keir’s vision for the party, with Anas Sarwar among the favourites.
His 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.
A weak Scottish Labour is expected to help the SNP win more Left-wing votes, boosting Nicola Sturgeon’s hopes of a Holyrood majority and a second independence referendum.
Mr Leonard, 59, saw off an attempted coup by moderate MSPs last September but has since faced the resignation of a series of key allies.
Michael Sharpe, the party’s Left-wing general secretary, resigned in December.
Referring to the pandemic, 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.
“I retain my faith in the Labour Party as the party that offers hope to people and that remains the only vehicle for the realisation of that hope.”
The Central Scotland MSP added: “Whilst I step down from the leadership today, the work goes on, and I will play my constructive part as an MSP in winning support for Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy and a socialist society.”
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.
“Even from opposition, he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud. This includes securing a commitment for the creation of a national care service, securing action on a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to deal with youth unemployment, securing a human rights-based public inquiry into the treatment of care home residents during the Covid pandemic and securing support for a Fair Rents Bill to give new rights to tenants.
“He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement. I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour.”