SCOTTISH Labour chiefs have rejected an attempt by disgruntled MSPs to spark a leadership challenge against Richard Leonard. 

James Kelly, who resigned from the party's frontbench last week, and Daniel Johnson wrote to party bosses seeking clarity over how a contest can be triggered.

They said they had the five necessary signatures, citing UK rules that a leader can be challenged with the backing of 20 per cent of the parliamentary party.

But Scottish Labour general secretary Michael Sharpe insisted this could not be used as a "precedent". 

Four MSPs – Mr Kelly, Mr Johnson, Jenny Marra and Mark Griffin – have publicly called for Mr Leonard to step down.

They fear the party is on course for a crushing defeat at the Holyrood election next year and have pointed to its poor performance in recent elections.

In a letter to Mr Sharpe, Mr Kelly and Mr Johnson wrote: “We are writing to you as we feel there is an urgent need to clarify the rules of the Labour Party.

"In particular with regard to the procedure to challenge a sitting leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

“As you may be aware, in recent days it has been briefed to the media and stated publicly by Richard Leonard that there is no mechanism by which the leader of the Scottish Labour Party can be formally challenged.

"However, we believe this is an inaccurate interpretation of the rules.

"The precedent has been set by the Labour Party that a leader can be challenged with the backing of 20% of the parliamentary party and our understanding of the Scottish Labour Party and Labour Party rule books confirm that this is the case."

They added: “On this basis, our understanding is that five signatures is sufficient to initiate a challenge.

"We have five members willing to sign such a challenge. We therefore request clarification on this matter at the earliest opportunity.”

They continued: “We reject the implication that, once installed, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party enjoys indefinite tenure.

"This is not democratic and goes against our party’s fundamental principles and values.

"This action has been driven by sorrow, not anger, after Richard Leonard has failed to command the support of MSPs, Labour activists and most importantly, the Scottish people.

“We are pleading with Richard, once again, to put our party first and to stand aside so that we can start the urgent work to regain the trust of the Scottish people ahead of next year’s election under a new leader.”

Mr Sharpe said: "The election of the leader and deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party is a matter for the Scottish Labour Party, as set out in our and the UK party rules.

"The rules for challenging an incumbent UK party leader are set out in the UK rules, as decided by the UK annual conference.

"This is a rule for that element of the Labour Party, but it is not a 'precedent' for the Scottish Labour Party.

"A 'precedent' might be a past action or decision of the Scottish Labour Party which helps interpret our rules. However, I am not aware of any such precedent on this issue."

The leadership's position is that there is no mechanism for disgruntled MSPs to remove Mr Leonard. 

A party source said: "Those are the party rules, end of. If anyone wants to moan about the rules not suiting their agenda or meeting their personal standards they're entitled to do that.

"But that's a very different argument to claiming there is a mechanism for MSPs to remove the leader.

"This coup attempt was doomed to fail from the start. All it has done is put a defiant Richard Leonard on every front page and news programme, and make the plotters look like they care more about saving their own jobs than saving jobs across Scotland."

Mr Leonard said: "Those same people who last week called on me to step down have yet again underestimated my resolve and the mandate I received from Scottish Labour Party members just under three years ago.

"Scottish Labour Party members know only too well just what a dereliction of duty it would be for the party to turn in on itself at the very point when the country is facing an unprecedented crisis."