Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has quit with immediate effect, declaring his decision to step down is in the “best interests” of the party.
The move comes just four months before the next Scottish Parliament election – and after Mr Leonard faced damaging calls from leading MSPs within the party to go.
Last September, Mr Leonard insisted he would lead Scottish Labour into May’s election, despite party MSPs James Kelly, Daniel Johnson and Jenny Marra all speaking out publicly against him.
On Thursday, he said: “I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it.
“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.
“This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.”
He thanked those who had worked with him, saying the experience of leading the party “will live with me forever”.
His decision leaves Scottish Labour looking for its fifth leader since the independence referendum in 2014 – with Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale all having held the job since then.
Mr Leonard, a left-winger and former trade union official, was voted into the post in November 2017, when Jeremy Corbyn was UK leader.
Sir Keir Starmer, who took over from Mr Corbyn last year, thanked Mr Leonard for his service to the party and for his “unwavering commitment to the values he believes in”.
Even from opposition he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proudSir Keir Starmer, Labour leader
Sir Keir said: “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.
“This includes securing a commitment for the creation of a national care service, securing action on a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to deal with youth unemployment, securing a human rights-based public inquiry into the treatment of care home residents during the Covid pandemic, and securing support for a Fair Rents Bill to give new rights to tenants.
“He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement.”
He added that Mr Leonard will “continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour”.
Mr Leonard himself insisted he still has “faith in the Labour Party as the party that offers hope to people and that remains the only vehicle for the realisation of that hope”.
He added: “Whilst I step down from the leadership today, the work goes on, and I will play my constructive part as an MSP in winning support for Labour’s vision of a better future in a democratic economy and a socialist society.
“Scotland needs a Labour government now more than ever before.
“Our National Health Service and public services are at breaking point under the strain of an out-of-control pandemic. Covid is rampant, claiming lives and striking down so many of our fellow citizens, who are grievously suffering from this awful virus.
“Workers’ incomes are being squeezed like never before, with job losses rife and businesses going bust.
“Too many employees go to work day in and day out, night in and night out leaving them vulnerable to the virus.”
He accused both the Scottish and UK governments of mishandling the response to coronavirus, adding: “It is essential now that we have an accelerated vaccine rollout – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to ensure that the most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected against Covid, and that the general population is given greater protection as quickly as possible after that.”