Sir Keir Starmer has said he has confidence in Richard Leonard but refused to be drawn on the Scottish Labour leader’s view that he is the best man for the job.
On a visit to Scotland, the UK Labour leader was unable to escape the internal row consuming Scottish Labour over Mr Leonard’s leadership.
During a virtual press conference, Sir Keir was asked repeatedly about Mr Leonard’s position, after several prominent party figures called on him to quit.
When asked if he had confidence in his Scottish leader, Sir Keir replied: “Yes”, adding that he supported Mr Leonard and would be working with him to build support ahead of next May’s Scottish elections.
Mr Leonard has responded to his critics by saying he doesn’t believe there is anyone else in the Scottish party better placed to lead it than him. In an interview this week he said he would resign if he thought there was someone else who could do his job more effectively.
When Sir Keir was asked whether he agreed with Mr Leonard’s suggestion that there were no other candidates with better credentials, the UK Labour leader declined to answer directly.
Sir Keir said: “Richard Leonard won the leadership of Scottish Labour and as the leader in Scotland – me as leader of the Labour Party – we have been working very closely together since I got elected as leader in April of this year.
“So what I am looking forward to is continuing that work with Richard and this afternoon we will be discussing what we need to do between now and next May in relation to the election in May. So I’ve got a very good working relationship with Richard and I support Richard.”
Sir Keir added: “I’ll be talking to him about what we need to do over the coming weeks and months to the Labour Party to restore trust in the Labour Party here in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.”
Mr Leonard’s leadership came under fire earlier this month when James Kelly and Mark Griffen resigned from his front bench team and called on him to resign.
An attempt to dislodge him failed at the weekend when a motion of no confidence tabled at the Scottish Executive Committee, the party’s governing body, was withdrawn.
Mr Leonard has hailed the withdrawal of the motion as a “watershed” and has vowed to lead the Scottish party into next year’s Scottish election.
After visiting Edinburgh University Medical School, Sir Keir pledged to “unite and unify” Labour, insisting it is time for the party to “pull together” and focus on the job in hand.
Asked about calls for another referendum on Scottish independence, he said: “One of my frustrations is that in the middle of a pandemic when we’ve got infection rates going back up again, we’ve got Boris Johnson and his government reopening Brexit, breaking international law and stirring up old divisions.
“And you’ve got the SNP talking about independence, when in my view we should all be talking about how we work together to defeat the virus.
“I don’t think that now is the time for a further divisive referendum and that’s my message, that’s the argument we will be making between now and May.”
Discussing party funding for next year’s Scottish Parliament election, he said: “We’re determined to have a very strong campaign here in Scotland, that’s one of the things I’ll be discussing with Richard Leonard this afternoon.
“Scotland is really important to me and to the Labour Party and we will be making sure that funding is there.”
Asked about Brexit, he said the “Leave-Remain divide is over” but he warned exiting the EU without a deal would be a “catastrophic failure of negotiation” from the Prime Minister.