THE Scottish Labour leadership contest has descended into civil war, with rival factions accusing one other of plotting to overthrow Kezia Dugdale and “barrel-scraping desperation”.

The extraordinary war of words broke out after a surreptitious recording of interim leader Alex Rowley revealed he and fellow left-wingers had planned for Ms Dugdale’s departure.

Despite previously insisting he would be neutral in the leadership race, he also said he was backing the pro-Corbyn candidate Richard Leonard against centrist Anas Sarwar.

Mr Rowley, whose daughter runs Mr Leonard’s campaign, last week denied sabotaging Mr Sarwar by teeing up attack lines for Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

The recording was made at the UK Labour conference in Brighton, reportedly while Mr Rowley talked to a student about politics as he was standing in a queue.

Mr Rowley said: “Although I’m neutral in the leadership, I believed that Richard Leonard has everything that we need to win in 2021.

“So when, to our surprise, the job became vacant, it just seemed to me, from a left perspective, the person most suited to do that job was Richard Leonard.

“For some time now we [Mr Rowley and left-wing MSP Neil Findlay] have thought he was the best candidate, and most people within the Left in Scotland think likewise.”

Mr Rowley said the Left did not put “any pressure on it [Ms Dugdale’s exit] to happen”.

However it did expect her to go before the next Scottish election, and planned what to do.

He said: “Privately, we did not think Kezia would be there to 2021.

But it [the timing] was a surprise to us. So our view was that Richard was the best person and therefore we should go with that plan.But he has now to get elected of course.”

Asked what made Mr Leonard, a former GMB official who was only elected as an MSP last year, best qualified for the role, Mr Rowley added: “His solid grounding in the Labour party. His views have never changed over many years in terms of coming from the left.

“If Anas was to win you would have [inaudible]. last maybe four years or whatever.

“Richard will demonstrate over time, just like Jeremy has, that he has got the intellectual capacity to be the leader.”

The tape prompted MSP Jackie Baillie, one of Mr Sarwar’s earliest supporters, to launch a withering attack on her party’s interim leader and demand an explanation from Mr Leonard.

She said: “Alex Rowley’s hypocrisy is incredibly disappointing. But what is most concerning is the revelations about a plot against Kezia Dugdale.

“Kez was elected with a huge majority and it will infuriate members to learn that some MSPs were working behind the scenes to undermine her and replace her with Richard Leonard.

“Richard must urgently answer questions about his role in this plot.

“This behaviour by the party establishment is a complete betrayal of the membership and every value we hold dear."

Mr Findlay described her comments as “barrel-scraping desperation”.

MSP Monica Lennon, vice chair of Mr Leonard’s supporters, issued a desperate plea for unity on Twitter.

She said: “Dear @scottishlabour family. Let's show a little love to each other and leave baseless allegations about colleagues to others. Monica x.”

Ms Dugdale resigned as Scottish labour leader last month after just two years in the post.

Mr Rowley revealed last week she had given him just 10 minutes’ notice of decision before it was made public, underlining the dysfunctional relationship between her and her deputy.

On BBC Radio 5 Live, Ms Dugdale confirmed the story: “I'm sure lots of people will be thinking, wow, that speaks to a lot of internal problems in the Labour party - they'd be right."

But she denied being pushed out by opponents, saying: “I wasn't bullied out of my position, I did this very much on my own terms.”

In an email titled "coment [sic] on latest jackie baillie pish", Mr Leonard's campaign team told one media outlet: "If there were any attempts to undermine Kezia - they did not involve Richard and he knew nothing of them.

“Any statements that he did are completely false."

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: "Alex was having what he believed to be a private conversation with a student and a political activist. He has not and will not publicly back a candidate. He has no intention of relinquishing his role as interim leader of the Labour Party in Scotland until after the current leadership contest is over."

SNP MSP Sandra White said the tape and reactions to it showed Labour’s “bitter” divisions.

She said: “With the Labour leadership campaign barely out of the starting blocks both factions are fighting like cats in a sack – it’s astonishing.

“It’s hard to imagine how Richard Leonard could command the respect of the party when senior MSPs are accusing him of a ‘complete betrayal’ of Labour values.

“And Alex Rowley’s authority as interim leader is now completely undermined.

“Once again, the bitter divisions within Labour are never far from the surface.

“As we’ve seen in recent days, Labour cannot be trusted on basic matters such as protecting Scotland’s single market membership – it is clear that they are more interested in settling old scores than focussing on the real issues facing the country.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “People already had their suspicions about Alex Rowley after last week’s FMQs stitch-up. This confirms he’s right behind Richard Leonard’s extremist drive to drag Scottish politics even further to the left.”

The infighting undermined also Mr Corbyn’s hope of a new leader unifying the Scottish party.

In his closing conference address, he Corbyn said: “Whoever next leads Scottish Labour - our unifying socialist message will continue to inspire both south and north of the border."