SCOTTISH Labour is searching for another new leader after Richard Leonard quit his job just four months before May’s Holyrood election. 

Mr Leonard, who had been in the job for three years, said his decision to step aside was in the “best interests of the party” – and has stepped down with immediate effect. 

Jackie Baillie, the party’s deputy leader, will take over on a temporary basis and has warned the party’s 23 MSPs they face “the fight of our lives” ahead of May’s election – with some polls predicting Labour’s support could drop the party into fourth place behind the Scottish Greens. 

It is thought that Anas Sarwar will emerge as the most likely candidate to replace Mr Leonard having lost out on the top job at the 2017 leadership contest – while party sources believe the preferred position would be to have a leader in place before the election. 

A Labour source told The Herald that MSPs were encouraging Mr Sarwar to put himself forward. 

The party’s Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) is due to discuss the situation on Saturday. 

READ MORE: Richard Leonard Quits: 'Flinching cowards and sneering traitors' blamed by Labour MSP

Prior to Mr Leonard announcing his decision, a conference call reportedly took place involving human rights lawyer Robert Latham who helped finance Sir Keir Starmer’s UK leadership bid, Labour’s only Scottish MP Ian Murray, Sir Keir’s deputy Angela Rayner and Ms Baillie. 

It is understood that Sir Keir spoke to Mr Leonard before he announced his decision. 

MSPs outside of Mr Leonard’s inner circle discovered the news on Twitter while one politician said the news came “completely out of the blue” amid concerns over the timing of Mr Leonard’s decision just four months before the party contests the Holyrood election. 

One MSP and a close ally of Mr Leonard pointed the finger at four of his colleagues who launched a failed attempt to remove the now former leader in September. 

Four months ago, MSPs Daniel Johnson, Jenny Marra, James Kelly and Mark Griffin claimed Mr Leonard had failed to listen to their concerns and feared they would lose their jobs at May’s election. 

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But the attempted coup ended in embarrassment after a failure to win enough support from fellow MSPs and confusion over whether MSPs have the authority to remove their leader as Mr Leonard insisted he was determined to stay on. 

Neil Findlay, Labour MSP for the Lothians has blamed the group of MSPs for Mr Leonard’s decision to stand down. 

Writing on Twitter, he said: “Looks like those who have led a three-year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. 

“These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.” 

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Mr Findlay quoted from Labour's anthem, The Red Flag - which contains the lyric 'Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer'. 

Mr Leonard warned that the discussion over his leadership has become "a distraction", adding "it is in the best interests of the party" for him to quit having “thought long and hard over the Christmas period” about his future. 

In a statement, he added: “I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour’s message across. This has become a distraction. 

"I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect. 

HeraldScotland: Richard Leonard with Sir Keir StarmerRichard Leonard with Sir Keir Starmer

This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.” 

In December, Mr Leonard was dealt a blow when Michael Sharpe, one of his closest allies, announced he was quitting. In the same month, Mr Leonard also lost his director of communications, Lynn McMath. 

Sir Keir has thanked Mr Leonard for his "unwavering commitment" to the Labour movement. 

He said: "I would like to thank Richard for his service to our party and his unwavering commitment to the values he believes in.  

"Richard has led Scottish Labour through one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history, including a general election and the pandemic. 

"Even from opposition he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud. 

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"I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour." 

Former Scottish Labour general secretary, Brian Roy, who stepped down in 2019, said Mr Leonard had made "the right decision".  

He added: "He has led Scottish Labour to the lowest point in its history.  

"His time as leader has been mired by bad decisions and poor performance. His leadership has hollowed out the party organisation and driven talented people out. Thankfully it is now time to turn the page."  

Chair of the SEC, Cara Hilton, said: "Richard Leonard has led our Party with principle and integrity in the most challenging of circumstances.  

"As a campaigning opposition leader, he has developed a strong policy platform and forced the SNP government to accept the case for a National Care Service.  

"While working hard to hold the SNP and Tory governments to account, he has always been generous with his time and support for all aspects of our party activity.

"On behalf of the SEC and the entire Scottish Labour Party, I would like to thank Richard for his service. I look forward to working with him in the future.   

"The procedures committee to oversee the election of a new Scottish Labour leader has now been formed and will hold its first meeting tomorrow and the Scottish Executive Committee will meet in the coming days to agree a timetable for electing Richard’s successor.”