KEIR Starmer has suggested that he stepped in to effectively fire the former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

Starmer’s admission to having stepped in to remove the democratically elected Scottish Labour boss has led to a backlash from within his own party, with activists calling it a “shocking attack on devolution and democracy”.

It has also opened a door for the SNP to attack Anas Sarwar’s Scottish Labour as a “branch office" which "plays to Westminster's tune".

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The news comes after the UK Labour leader did an interview with The Times in which he suggested that creating change in his party had required “some pretty ruthless decisions … the Scottish leader was gone two years ago”.

He further told the paper that barring former leader Jeremy Corbyn as a General Election candidate and seeing the Corbynite Jennie Formby leave as general secretary had been part of the change he had ushered in.

“We knew what we had to do with the general secretary,” Starmer said. “Look at Scotland for example now [Nicola] Sturgeon has gone. We may have an opportunity to win votes.

“But frankly if we hadn’t changed the leader in Scotland two years ago, we would be at base camp rather than in a position to take advantage of that.”

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It was an open secret at the time that Starmer had stepped in to effectively fire Leonard from the top job in Scottish Labour.

In February 2021, the UK leader told senior party colleagues and potential donors he had no confidence in Leonard’s leadership. The Scottish leader resigned the following day, with a Holyrood election just months away.

But the latest comments go further towards an admission of a direct intervention than Starmer has before, and have provoked a backlash from within his own party.

The grassroots internal Labour campaign group Momentum tweeted: “Long suspected, now brazenly admitted: the UK Labour leader actively forced out Scottish Labour's democratically-elected leader.

“A shocking attack on devolution and democracy.”

The National: Richard Leonard MSP joins University staff and students at Glasgow University monday for a strike by UCU over pensions. STY..Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..14/2/22.

The Times reported that Leonard (above) declined to comment, but allies pointed to a video he had posted on Twitter in February about Labour founder Keir Hardie. In the post, Leonard called Hardie “a political leader who wanted to shape, not simply follow public opinion”.

On Tuesday morning, after the story was published, Leonard shared the video again, writing: “Hardie was a political leader who wanted to shape, not simply follow, public opinion.”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who was beaten by Anas Sarwar in the leadership race that followed Leonard’s resignation, hinted at criticising Starmer in a reply to Leonard’s video.

“A leader called Keir…” Lennon wrote.

The Times further reported an ally of Leonard’s said: “Richard does at least hold one leader called Keir in high esteem.”

SNP MP David Linden, in a tweet shared by his group leader Stephen Flynn, commented simply: “Not a branch office.”

And the party's depute leader at Westminster, Mhairi Black, said: “Keir Starmer has admitted what we've all known for a very long time – that Scottish Labour is nothing more than a branch office under Westminster control. When Keir Starmer says jump, Anas Sarwar asks how high.

“By boasting about sacking Richard Leonard, Starmer has once again revealed the contempt he holds for Scottish democracy and has shown that Anas Sarwar will continue to play to Westminster's tune no matter the disastrous consequences for Scotland."

The National:

The left-wing trade unionist Leonard became Scottish Labour leader in 2017, beating Anas Sarwar by 57% of the vote to 43%.

His removal, and the subsequent election of Sarwar in 2021 after he beat Lennon by a similar margin, was a part of UK Labour’s wider shift towards the right under Starmer.

The UK Labour leader has dropped key left-wing pledges such as the nationalisation of water and rail since winning power, and has exercised an iron grip on selection processes to ensure that the people nominated to run for Labour as MPs are his own allies.