THERE’S a lot to like in Richard Leonard. There is no swagger about him, no sense of entitlement. In a world of pugilists, at least of the verbal variety, he is unfashionably earnest and mild-mannered. The forum of First Minister’s Questions, which some party leaders regard as a bloodsport, he approaches with the finger-wagging seriousness of an exasperated geography teacher, and occasionally even manages to make Nicola Sturgeon look sheepish. Lacking overt egotism, he does not match the political zeitgeist, which is something of a relief when you look around at some of the major political figures of our time.

With such an unassuming manner, and being new to elected office, it was inevitable that some, both within Labour and elsewhere, would find the former GMB official unconvincing. And so, within weeks of winning the Labour leadership contest last November, the whispers began: he was “weak”.

At first, the criticism felt reminiscent of that old misogynist jibe that women aren’t cut out for the boardroom. You don’t get to confound people’s expectations about what sort of person should lead Scottish Labour (thick-skinned, battle-hardened, could stare down a rottweiler), without a backlash.

But a year on, for the party that once dominated Scotland, there is real cause for concern. Mr Leonard’s detractors have dubbed him the “invisible man” because of his lack profile on a Holyrood stage dominated by Ms Sturgeon and Tory leader Ruth Davidson (who has bagged more headlines in recent weeks than her Labour rival even though she’s on maternity leave). This is undoubtedly a problem, but is symptomatic of the deeper, underlying difficulty: Mr Leonard’s loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn.

After the resignation of rebel-hearted Kezia Dugdale as Scottish leader, Mr Corbyn’s candidate was always going to be a shoo-in to the top job in Scotland, but that very loyalty was also bound to be a liability because of the constraints it places on the Scottish leader.

Previous Scottish Labour leaders have understood the need to stand apart from their UK counterparts as dynamic figures in their own right, though not all have managed to go as far as they wanted. The Scottish Labour chief must be seen to make policy in Scotland, even if it goes against or beyond the UK party position, and to have the authority and determination to prevail. The SNP’s decade of success has made the issue more acute, forcing the other parties to prioritise being seen to “stand up for Scotland”, a faintly Trumpian phrase that means very little except showing a willingness to defy Westminster politicians.

It’s hard to convince people you’re “standing up for Scotland” if they assume you check with the boss in Islington before deciding what to say.

Mr Leonard has had opportunities to speak up with an independent voice but has often been reluctant to do so. During UK Labour’s anti-Semitism row this summer, he was silent; the same was true when the UK party unexpectedly withdrew funding for Ms Dugdale’s legal case against Stuart Campbell of the website Wings over Scotland. On Brexit, he has tacked closely to the leadership line.

It’s true that the Scottish leaders of all UK-wide parties worry about handing the media “split stories” by contradicting their UK party’s position, but that is surely less damaging for Mr Leonard than being perceived as an irrelevance. If he wants to be taken seriously as a potential First Minister, the faithful acolyte must go beyond evangelising for Mr Corbyn and show independence.

Instead, he has attempted to show his strength by sacking two of the leading moderates on the Holyrood front bench, Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie, an unlikeable decision which perversely made him look, not tough, but insecure. Not only has it been interpreted as part of an effort to turn Scottish Labour into a pro-Corbyn monoculture, but Mr Sarwar and Ms Baillie were among the best performers on his team.

And yet, just recently, there have been signs that Mr Leonard is starting to tire of toeing the party line. He has declared that raising the higher threshold for tax should not be a priority for the Scottish Government, even though shadow chancellor John McDonnell has backed the government’s plans to do so at Westminster. Good for Mr Leonard.

Unfortunately, his attempt to take a stand on the defining issue of a second independence referendum (he insists that UK Labour will rule one out going into the next General election) has been undermined by Mr Corbyn, whose position is that he will “decide at the time” whether he should agree to another referendum request from the Scottish Government, if he is Prime Minister. John McDonnell, a few days ago, tried wholly unsuccessfully to square the circle by insisting that he was “sure” the commitment would be in the manifesto, but also that Labour would consider any future referendum request. Huh?

Is Mr Leonard demonstrating courage or foolhardiness in ruling out another referendum? That depends. For now, he must feel it is a comfortable berth for his party, with repeated polls showing a strong majority of Scots opposing another referendum any time soon.

But with the depressive economic effect of Brexit still to play out, momentum could yet build around having another crack at independence, and then what for Labour? It will be accused by the SNP of siding with the Tories and denying Scots their right to choose.

On the other hand, by the time another independence referendum becomes a genuine possibility, if Labour are in government and the Tories are busy falling apart in opposition, such lines of attack may have lost some of their capacity to wound. Working class voters who responded to the SNP’s promise last time round of a fairer independent Scotland, might find new things to like about staying in the UK with Labour taking the country in a different direction.

Seldom has it been harder to read the political tea leaves, so any position Mr Leonard takes is a calculated risk. Since Labour’s supporters are divided on independence, he stands to lose some votes if he takes a stand, but dithering over it will only mean leaching away votes to both the SNP and to the Tories.

So take a position he must – and then he must convince the UK Labour leadership to back him up.

That might silence the whispers, for a while.