RICHARD Leonard is facing fresh criticism of his leadership of Scottish Labour after failing to speak while his MSPs argued under his nose.

Sources said Mr Leonard maintained a “Trappist silence” at a stormy meeting of the party’s Holyrood group as it discussed a legal case involving his predecessor Kezia Dugdale.

One source said it was astonishing Mr Leonard chose not to contribute, given the issue has become the biggest test of his leadership since he succeeded Ms Dugdale last November.

Mr Leonard also refused to say a word to the media after the 75-minute meeting broke up without coming to a conclusion, following what were described as “frank exchanges”.

Left-wing MSP Elaine Smith was seen slamming the table at the end of the meeting before dashing out, quickly followed by fellow left-winger Neil Findlay.

One source said: “Richard didn’t say a thing when Kez’s case was discussed. More or less everyone else spokes about it, but not him. There were a lot of people supportive of Kez.

“Richard was almost invisible. He should have led from the very start. If you think a meeting is going to be heated, you try to take the heat out by showing you’re the leader at the start.

“In the end, there was no decision and Elaine Smith stormed out.”

However another source said Mr Leonard had always intended to speak at the end of contributions but ran out of time, and he will speak on the issue at a future meeting.

Mr Leonard also suffered embarrassment ahead of the meeting, when the Herald revealed leaked WhatsApp messages showing fighting within his shadow cabinet on the issue.

Economy spokesperson Jackie Baillie referred to a problems with “factions” in a squabble with business manager Rhoda Grant and campaigns spokesperson Neil Findlay.

Ms Dugdale is facing potentially huge legal bills over a £25,000 defamation action brought by Nationalist blogger Stuart Campbell, who runs the Wings Over Scotland website.

He is suing Ms Dugdale after she accused him in a newspaper column of making a homophobic remark about gay Scottish Secretary David Mundell.

Mr Campbell, 50, an influential voice in the Yes movement, strongly denies the charge.

Referring to Mr Mundell’s son, the Tory MSP Oliver Mundell, Mr Campbell had tweeted in March last year: “Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.”

Mr Mundell yesterday said he had agreed to appear in court as a witness for Ms Dugdale ih her defence of the action, and had already provided a written statement for her.

It is understood the statement re-states his negative view of Mr Campbell’s remark.

He retweeted it at the time with the comment: “Nicola Sturgeon asks ‘What kind of country do we want to live in?’ My answer: not one where homophobia is acceptable.”

Ms Dugdale’s case has plunged Scottish Labour into turmoil, pitting those who supported and opposed Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader against each other once more.

Ms Dugdale, who opposed Mr Corbyn becoming leader, says the UK Labour party previously agreed to pay all her all legal bills, whatever the outcome of the case.

Last month general secretary Jennie Formby ended the funding after the bill hit £95,000.

Ms Dugdale’s supporters, including some MSPs, see the party’s decision as payback for the Lothian MSP opposing Jeremy Corbyn becoming the UK Labour leader.

However Ms Formby says the party only agreed to “initial support”, and had honoured that.

Many left-wingers also argue the party’s money would be far better spent on campaigning.

With tensions rising, the weekly meeting of Labour MSPs discussed the issue, and whether to call for Labour’s decision to be reversed.

However it ended inconclusively, with the group’s collective position still unclear.

“There’s no white smoke,” said one of those present.

Asked why Ms Smith thumped the table, a Labour press officer sighed: “Who knows?”

Stephen Low, who served on Mr Leonard’s leadership campaign, said Ms Dugdale’s version of events could not be trusted, referring to it as “sabotage”.

He also described those using her case to attack the party leadership as “wreckers”.

The Daily Record is now giving Ms Dugdale legal support, but she is understood to remain liable for Mr Campbell’s damages and costs if she loses.

Asked about Mr Leonard’s silence, Scottish Labour said: “We do not comment on leaks.”