JIM Murphy has handed a key role to one of Tony Blair's most senior former aides as he seeks to strengthen his backroom team ahead of crucial elections this year and next.


John McTernan has been appointed as chief of staff to the Scottish Labour leader.

The strategist, 55, will take charge of Mr Murphy's team at Holyrood and help shape Scottish Labour's message as the party seeks to make up ground on the SNP.

He will work alongside the party's new deputy leader, Kezia Dugdale, and oversee Scottish Labour's media and policy operations.

Mr McTernan was a special adviser in Mr Blair's policy unit at No 10 before serving as the Prime Minister's political secretary from 2005 to 2007.

More recently, he was communications director for former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard until her election defeat in 2013.

A Scottish Labour source said the appointment would strengthen the team around Mr Murphy.

"This is not just a UK election move, we are building towards the 2016 Holyrood election," the insider said.

The party has also recruited a new press officer, Kieron Higgins, who worked for the Better Together campaign and as an aide to MSP James Kelly, and a policy specialist, Nigel Anthony.

Brian Roy, the son of Motherwell and Wishaw MP Frank Roy, was also recently appointed as Scottish Labour general secretary, the party's top official.

Blair McDougall, the Better Together campaign director, has been working in Mr Murphy's office on a voluntary basis and may become part of the permanent team, insiders said.

A number of other key staff members are expected to be hired as Labour seek to slash the SNP's 20 point lead in the polls or face a near wipe-out on May 7.

If the party can - as the new leader has vowed - hold onto its Scottish seats, it faces an even harder challenge next year to overturn the SNP's 26 seat advantage at Holyrood.

Mr McTernan has worked for Mr Murphy before, serving as his special adviser when he was Scottish Secretary from 2008 to 2010.

He also worked for Mr Murphy's predecessor at the Scotland Office, Des Browne.

Prior to advising Mr Blair, he was Henry McLeish's head of policy during his time as first minister.

Since leaving Australia, he has enjoyed a high profile career as a commentator and columnist.

He is widely admired as a political strategist but has found himself at the centre of controversy in the past.

He was questioned under caution as part of the police's inquiry into the cash-for-honours scandal, following a complaint by SNP MP Angus MacNeil.

However he was not charged and the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was no evidence of deals to provide Labour with loans in return for peerages.