Labour shadow cabinet ‘on verge of collapse’ over Dugdale legal fees row
The Herald on Sunday’s Politics and Investigations Editor, Paul Hutcheon, is reporting that Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, pictured right, is considering a reshuffle of his shadow cabinet amid claims he is being undermined by his colleagues.
He is discussing the move after a week of infighting over the UK party decision to stop funding ex-leader Kezia Dugdale’s legal fees in her battle against a pro-independence blogger.
MSP allies of the left-wing leader, who has been accused of not doing enough to help Ms Dugdale, have alleged that the row is being exploited by Labour colleagues to harm him politically.
Elaine Smith MSP said: “It is now clear that some are cynically using this situation to seek to undermine Richard’s leadership, and trying to overturn the democratic vote of party members who elected him less than a year ago.”
Monica Lennon, who sits in the shadow cabinet with Ms Smith, said: “Some of our parliamentarians have never accepted the outcome of the Scottish Labour leadership result last year and have undermined Richard from day one. The politically motivated attacks must stop and the leadership result should be respected.”
The Herald on Sunday understands Mr Leonard is mulling over a shake-up, which would mean sacking colleagues, in response to what has been described as “relentless negative behaviour from some within the shadow cabinet since he became leader”.
Mr Leonard became his party’s Scottish leader last year after defeating moderate MSP Anas Sarwar, but a majority of MSPs backed Mr Sarwar and Mr Leonard has struggled to assert his authority in his own group.
Some MSPs believe Mr Leonard is too close to UK leader Jeremy Corbyn and should be striking out his own positions on issues such as Brexit.
The latest flashpoint between Mr Leonard and his colleagues centres on the defamation action pursued by Stuart Campbell, who runs the Wings over Scotland blog, against Ms Dugdale, who led the party for two years.
In 2017, referring to gay Conservative MP David Mundell and his son Oliver, the blogger tweeted:
“Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.”
Ms Dugdale used her column in a tabloid newspaper to accuse Wings of “homophobic tweets”, which Mr Campbell strenuously denies. He is suing Ms Dugdale for £25,000.
Labour at a UK level agreed to pay Ms Dugdale’s legal fees, but new party general secretary Jennie Formby, a supporter of Mr Corbyn, recently reversed the decision.
The move caused ructions inside Mr Leonard’s shadow cabinet and the wider group of MSPs, many of whom believed Ms Dugdale had been treated badly.
Last week, the group is said to have agreed to issue a public statement calling on the Formby decision to be reversed.
However, a source said Mr Leonard’s supporters did not agree to the wording and a general “solidarity” message was sent instead.
Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray yesterday criticised Mr Leonard: “Richard Leonard has gone strangely silent, because he’s merely the nodding dog to Corbyn, and we need that to change.
“Kez spent her entire leadership dispelling the myth that Scotland is just a branch office. Now, it’s simply what Corbyn says goes, or you get ostracised.”
Labour MSPs will gather for their weekly group meeting on Tuesday and both sides expect a fiery debate.
Party insiders predict the row could lead to shadow cabinet resignations, unless Mr Leonard takes a stronger stance in favour of Ms Dugdale.
However, the leader could pre-empt a walkout by sacking MSPs who he believes are not supportive enough of his leadership.
A senior party source said: “There’s no doubt, the Shadow Cabinet is on the verge of collapse.”
A Scottish Labour spokesperson declined to comment.
In an interview last week, Ms Dugdale spoke of Labour’s original decision to pay her legal costs.
“There was no question mark over it, they were going to support this case,” she said.
“Fast forward 18 months – and it’s pretty shocking it’s taken that long to get to the preliminary hearing, we’re not even at the full proof yet – and I had to find out by email from my solicitor that the Labour party weren’t prepared to pay any more legal bills.
She added: “I probably hit one of the lowest personal moments of my life. I’ve lived through a lot of very stressful situations, I’ve developed coping mechanisms in stressful situations, but I lost the ability to cope with this for a few days.
“First of all, how was I going to pay? This could mean my house, my livelihood. You can’t be an MSP if you’re declared bankrupt.”