RICHARD Leonard has suggested the MSPs trying to oust him could be deselected ahead of the Holyrood election.

The embattled Scottish Labour leader said the rebels may not be “the best people to stand for the Labour party in the elections next year year”.

He said: “If any party representative thinks an internal faction fight is more important than this agenda, then they will have to answer to party members and the voters whom we serve". 

Mr Leonard, who became Scottish Labour’s ninth Holyrood leader in 2017, was speaking after three of his 23 MSPs said he should resign to avoid a “catastrophe” in 2021.

Recent polls indicate Labour heading for a third electoral reversal in a row next year, with the party standing at just 14 per cent in the polls, and Mr Leonard unknown to most Scots.

Scottish labour lost both its MEPs and six of its seven MPs in elections last year. 

Glasgow MSP James Kelly resigned as justice spokesman after saying he had confidence in Mr Leonard to turn the party around before polling day.

North East MSP Jenny Marra also told the Times that Mr Leonard presiding over a decline in party fortunes and failed to make a difference. 

Edinburgh Southern MSP Daniel Johnson told the Herald : “I think we have just got to the end of our tethers and we are looking at an election disaster next year.

“There’s a huge amount of anxiety in the wider party.”

However Mr Leonard brushed aside the criticism as coming from “disgruntled MSPs” who had never wanted him to be leader.

He told BBC Scotland: “We’re a democratic party. There’s also been room for dissent, and people can voice their views.

“But in the end I am concerned that this is a signal that there is too much inward-looking inside the group in Holyrood and not enough outward facing.

“And, you know, I think that that frankly calls into question whether some of these people are the best people to stand for the Labour party in the elections next year.”

Rejecting the calls for him to stand down, he said: “I was elected with a strong mandate from the membership of the Scottish Labour party less than three years ago, and that mandate included calling on me to lead the Scottish Labour party into next year’s 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, and that is what I will be doing.”

He said he was “disappointed” that Mr Kelly had quit the front bench.

He said: “James Kelly has been unhappy I think for some time. So his resignation doesn’t completely surprise me.

“But I am very disappointed in the timing of his resignation and calls for ny resignation because it coincides with us successfully getting the Scottish Government to adopt our policy of the creation of a National Care Service.

“It comes on the eve of the Scottish Government announcing our policy of a Jobs Guarantee Scheme for young people.

“So we’ve been making the agenda in politics, we’ve been winning the arguments, which makes it all the more disappointing that today has been the day when this [happened].”

Mr Leonard has been backed by Labour MSPs Neil Findlay and Rhoda Grant.

Accusing the mutineers MSPs of "treachery", Mr Findlay tweeted: "In the middle of a pandemic with huge consequences for working people we need a plan for jobs, people’s futures and the sustainability of our plant - NOT more Labour infighting."

Scottish party chair Cara Hilton, a former MSP,  gave Mr Leonard her support.

She tweeted: “Just 8 months till #SP21. Every single @scottishlabour representative should be 100% focused on fighting the SNP & Tories, not each other. 

“@LabourRichard is our elected leader, let's get behind him and fight - together - for Scotland's future, one fairer for all  #UnityIsStrength”.

However most of the Holyrood group conspicuously failed to rally round Mr Leonard.

Mr Leonard faced Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs amid the crisis, asking the First Minister about the fatal impact of coronavirus in Scotland’s care homes.

Apart from a gentle joke about whether he would still be in his post next January, Ms Sturgeon did not refer to Mr Leonard’s party feuding.

Scottish Tory MSP Annie Wells said: “Today’s attempt to oust Richard Leonard is just further evidence that Labour in Scotland are too weak and divided to offer any effective opposition to the SNP. 

“They would sooner fight each other than fight the nationalists.

“It shows again that only the Scottish Conservatives have the strength and determination to take on the SNP, and stop their renewed efforts to drag Scotland back to the division of the past with another Referendum Bill.”