Richard Leonard stamps his authority on Scottish Labour with high-stakes reshuffle

The Scottish Labour leader will hope he benefits from greater coherence, but more public acrimony could be the result instead. 

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Richard Leonard has stamped his authority on the Scottish Labour party in a shock reshuffle of his frontbench that sent Jackie Baillie, the longest-serving Labour MSP, and his defeated rival for the Labour leadership, Anas Sarwar, back to the backbenches.

Leonard has opted to take control of the economy portfolio – previously held by Baillie – himself, and has appointed Neil Findlay, another longstanding member of the Labour left, to the role of business manager (in effect making him both chief whip and human resources manager for the Labour parliamentary group and its staff). In bringing back Alex Rowley, the former deputy leader, after he resigned following allegations of domestic abuse, he is further surrounding himself with allies in key posts. The leadership hope that they will benefit from greater policy coherence as a result. 

Centre-left MSPs and staffers, however, see the reshuffle as a self-inflicted wound. One described it as “2016 without the excuse”, referencing Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 Shadow Cabinet, which was staffed by long-in-the-tooth veterans and neophyte MPs thanks to the massed resignations of Corbynsceptics from the Opposition frontbench. Several members of the Scottish parliamentary group believe that their party’s frontbench is now significantly weaker than it was this morning to no good end.

Allies of Leonard point to the stream of leaks from within frontbench meetings, meetings of the Labour parliamentary group and from the MSPs’ WhatsApp group as a sign that radical action needed to be taken to curb a parallel briefing operation which had grown ever more assertive.

But the risk for Leonard is that negative briefing and leaks will intensify rather than abate, and that his show of strength results not in greater coherence, but in still more public division.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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