Richard Leonard has axed two of his most prominent frontbenchers in a shadow cabinet reshuffle that has sparked civil war in the Scottish Labour Party.
The Scottish Labour leader was last night condemned by fellow Labour politicians for sacking Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie in a reshuffle described by Mr Leonard’s critics as a “victory for factionalism”.
Mr Sarwar and Ms Baillie are seen as centrist members of a Scottish party that has seen a widening split between Mr Leonard’s left-wing allies and the more moderate parliamentarians.
The demotion of Mr Sarwar and Ms Baillie, who have been regarded as two of Scottish Labour’s best performing frontbenchers, was described as “sad” by Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray.
Mr Sarwar, who was narrowly defeated by Mr Leonard for the Scottish Labour leadership just over a year ago, was sacked as shadow health secretary.
The Glasgow MSP said he was “very disappointed” to lose his job, adding he was dismayed to learn of his fate via Twitter while representing Labour in a health debate in the Holyrood chamber. His imminent departure from Labour’s frontbench was even referred to by SNP health secretary Jeane Freeman in the debate on “women in sport”.
Mr Sarwar met Mr Leonard to be told of his demotion – a courtesy that was not extended to Ms Baillie, the Dumbarton MSP who left parliament at 5pm sharp after several hours of speculation over her position.
Ms Baillie, who is the only Labour MSP to have represented the same constituency since the birth of devolution in 1999, was sacked over the phone from her job as shadow economy spokeswoman.
Mr Leonard’s reshuffle came on the same day Scottish Labour’s head of communications Charlie Mann quit, saying the job was “not for me”.
His departure followed several days of infighting over UK Labour’s controversial decision to halt its funding for former Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale’s legal battle against a pro-independence blogger. A majority of Labour MSPs believe the party should fully fund Ms Dugdale’s legal fees after Stuart Campbell, from the Wings Over Scotland website, brought a £25,000 defamation case against her.
Left-wing allies of Mr Leonard had claimed Ms Dugdale’s supporters were undermining his leadership. Mr Leonard had been criticised for failing to do enough to get the UK party to over-turn its decision.
Mr Leonard claimed his new team would “focus on unity and the public, not ourselves and internal battles”.
But hopes of uniting the party were dashed as soon as the shadow cabinet was announced. One Labour source described it as a “victory of factionalism over competence”. “It is like taking your two best players off the pitch when you’re three-nil down,” the source said. “This is straight out of the Corbyn playbook.”
Mr Murray was angered by the dismissals. On Mr Sarwar’s sacking, Mr Murray said: “The purge of good, capable and committed people goes on merely for standing up for what they believe in. One of our most effective and likeable MSPs. I don’t know whether to be angry or sad. I thought Richard was better than this.”
Moving on to Ms Baillie’s departure, Mr Murray said he was “sad, sad, sad” to see her sacked, describing her as “one of the most effective MSPs in Holyrood and very well liked in her constituency”.
Mr Sarwar said: “It’s a shame I came to know about this decision through Twitter, while I was leading for Labour in a health debate in the Holyrood chamber. I am incredibly proud of the work I did on behalf of NHS patients and staff, particularly the creation of a workforce commission, the campaign to end the pay cap and the fight to protect local services from SNP cuts.
“For the sake of all the people who need a Labour government, I wish Richard Leonard and his shadow cabinet all the very best. I will continue to serve my constituents tirelessly from the backbenches, campaigning for issues close to my heart.”
Monica Lennon is taking on the health post for the party. Mr Leonard will combine his leadership with the economy brief.
In another controversial move Alex Rowley, Scottish Labour’s former acting leader who was suspended over harassment claims, was reinstated to the shadow cabinet. Mr Rowley, who rejected the claims, was appointed to the local government brief.
Ms Baillie said: “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve and will continue to be a strong advocate for my constituents – and Labour values. I wish Richard Leonard well for the future.”
Mr Leonard said: “The refreshed shadow cabinet will take Scottish Labour into the central debate in Scottish politics: the clear choice between Labour’s plan to invest and build an economy that works for the many, not the few, or further austerity with the SNP and the Tories.”