Sir Keir helpless to remove ‘Mr Whatshisname’ from head of Scottish Labour

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Despite Labour languishing at 14% in the polls north of the border, the Westminster leader knows he must tread carefully.

    Polls had closed in the 2015 general election and data was streaming into John Smith House, Scottish Labour’s Glasgow HQ.

    As the scale of the party’s imminent destruction north of the border sunk in, one senior figure was in shock, vomiting in a toilet.

    Tectonic plates were shifting in Scotland. For decades the party had relied on a large number of Scottish MPs to help it get even close to a Commons majority. Before 2015, there were 41 Labour MPs north of the border. That night, just one survived; that remains the case today.

    
Sir Keir helpless to remove 'Mr Whatshisname' from head of Scottish Labour

    Sir Keir Starmer’s first five months as Labour leader have made it abundantly clear that everything is focused on his sole aim: becoming prime minister. But without a Scottish resurgence that looks difficult, perhaps impossible.

    The man in charge – at least for now – is Richard Leonard. After becoming Scottish Labour leader in November 2017, he presided over a painful 2019 European election result (from two MEPs to zero), and an even worse 2019 general election (from seven MPs back to one).

    His party is languishing at 14% in the polls. At next May’s Scottish Parliament elections, Labour are on course for another drop in MSPs.

    Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP looks likely to secure a pro-independence majority and push for a second referendum.

    Mr Leonard, a Yorkshireman and an ally of Jeremy Corbyn, had a long career in trade unions before reaching Holyrood. His enemies concede he’s a “nice guy” but argue his leadership has been a “disaster”.

    They claim he is “notorious” for not working weekends and failing to answer his phone. It is also suggested he didn’t use parliamentary email when first elected in 2016, instead insisting messages be printed out and a staff member type up responses. An ally of Mr Leonard argues he is both “professional and hard-working”.

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    Mr Leonard’s profile is so low – the ​Scottish Sun ​has labelled him “Mr Whatshisname” – that one recent poll suggests most Scottish voters have no opinion of him.

    But he is determined to fight on and told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “I think those people that have been calling this week for me to step down have underestimated both my resolve but also the mandate that I got from the members of the Scottish Labour Party.”

    Faced with a concerning outlook, colleagues claim Sir Keir is keen to act. One of his key allies, Rachel Reeves, gave a hint of this frustration earlier this week, telling Sky News that Mr Leonard should “consider his position”.

    
Sir Keir helpless to remove 'Mr Whatshisname' from head of Scottish Labour

    But due to historical friction between the Westminster and Holyrood parties, Sir Keir knows any intervention could be damaging.

    The key cautionary tale is the failed relationship between former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont and her then Westminster counterpart, Ed Miliband. That ended with Ms Lamont’s explosive 2014 resignation and her infamous jibe that the Scottish party should not be treated as a “branch office of a party based in London”.

    The words “branch office” were soon weaponised by the SNP as evidence Scottish Labour lacked autonomy.

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    Sir Keir knows the danger of pulling rank, and his press team continue to say it is “a matter for Scottish Labour”.

    This week, four MSPs quit shadow roles and called for Mr Leonard to go. It has failed to shift him.

    The unions are so far either standing by him or keeping silent, and it is unlikely that Mr Leonard’s two predecessors still in the Scottish Parliament – Iain Gray and Ms Lamont – will intervene.

    A leadership challenge is possible, as is a vote of confidence by the party’s Scottish Executive Committee.

    But for now, this latest challenge to his leadership has made “Mr Whatshisname” better known than ever before – and has left Sir Keir helpless.

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