Labour chiefs try to crown Anas Sarwar as new Scottish leader 'imminently'

Simon Johnson
·3-min read
Anas Sarwar is the frontrunner to be the next Scottish Labour leader - PA
Anas Sarwar is the frontrunner to be the next Scottish Labour leader - PA

Labour chiefs are hoping to crown Anas Sarwar as new Scottish leader "imminently", with the Left struggling to find a candidate.

Ian Murray, the Shadow Scottish Secretary and the party's only MP north of the Border, said the party "cannot afford a contest" so close to May's Holyrood election.

He said that "if the party was being sensible" it should get a candidate selected and in place "imminently". The Edinburgh South MP added: "It has to be wrapped up by mid-February."

Although Mr Sarwar, the clear frontrunner for the role, is yet to announce whether he will stand, Mr Murray said the moderate Glasgow MSP would be "very much worth supporting" if he stood.

Senior moderates were hoping that Mr Sarwar could reach a deal with Monica Lennon, the party's health spokesman at Holyrood, who was viewed as his most likely challenger.

Ms Lennon told BBC Radio Scotland she was "ruling nothing in and ruling nothing out at this stage." She added: " I’m listening to members and colleagues and I’m having discussions with them."

Mr Murray's intervention came ahead of an emergency meeting on Saturday morning of Labour's Scottish executive committee to decide the timetable and rules for the process to replace Richard Leonard, who quit suddenly on Thursday.

A candidate requires the support of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party, which consists of 23 MSPs and Mr Murray. That means they need the backing of three other people.

Despite the relatively low threshold, the party's Left wing was last night struggling to find a candidate. Some of the MSPs most closely aligned with Jeremy Corbyn are standing down at the election.

One of them, Neil Findlay, yesterday wrote an account of Mr Leonard's downfall in which he claimed a "group of millionaire potential party donors" delivered the "fatal blow."

He said the donors attended a meeting on Wednesday night with Angela Rayner, Mr Murray and Jackie Baillie, the deputy Scottish leader, and "made clear that no money would be donated unless Leonard was removed and Anas Sarwar installed as leader."

Writing for the political magazine Tribune, Mr Findlay said this was "reported to Starmer who then called Richard and asked him to stand down."

However, this explanation for Mr Leonard's departure was disputed by senior insiders, who said it had been in the offing for several months.

The Telegraph disclosed yesterday that Mr Leonard had been ousted in a coup organised with the backing of Sir Keir, a number of former senior ministers and a group of influential union leaders.

They decided to act with the party still trailing badly in the opinion polls and on course to lose more seats at Holyrood.

The departure of Mr Leonard, a Yorkshire-born former union official, is expected to be a boost for the Union as a weak Scottish Labour under his leadership would help the SNP win more Centre-Left votes, helping Nicola Sturgeon get a majority and a second independence referendum.

Mr Sarwar, 37, is a father of three and former dentist on the party's moderate wing. He is the son of Mohammad Sarwar, the former Glasgow Central MP and current governor of Punjab in Pakistan.

He lost out to Mr Leonard for the leadership in 2017 as the party veered to the Left under Mr Corbyn amid scrutiny of his family's wealth. However, he remained one of Labour's most effective performers in the Holyrood chamber.