Johann Lamont backed to be caretaker leader

SENIOR figures in Scottish Labour want deputy leader Johann Lamont to take over as caretaker leader of the party for a year when Iain Gray steps down this autumn.

The move follows previous suggestions that Gray could be asked by the party to stay on past the autumn, to allow time to elect a credible successor as Scottish Labour leader.

The issue was discussed at a meeting of Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster, where a split emerged between Gray's backers who want him to stay on as leader into next year and those who want Lamont to take over on a temporary basis.

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A senior Labour source at Westminster said the "loudest voices" at the meeting were those expressing fears that Gray, who led the party to a humiliating Holyrood election defeat, would not be a credible leader going into the local government elections in 2012.

The 90-minute meeting at the House of Commons was attended by Labour MSP Sarah Boyack and shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, who are jointly leading a review of Scottish Labour's structure, organisation and policy following the party's election defeat.

Former Scottish Labour minister Hugh Henry said he would have "no problem" with Lamont being caretaker leader for a year, while senior Labour peer and former UK Government minister Lord Foulkes said he knew some MPs were discussing the prospect of the deputy leader taking charge of the party until after next year's local council elections.

More than two months after Labour's tally of 46 MSPs plummeted to 37, no obvious frontrunner has emerged to succeed Gray, with the party's ranks depleted at Holyrood due to high profile figures and potential leadership contenders losing their seats to the SNP. Some figures in Scottish Labour suggest that Gray should temporarily continue as leader, despite agreeing to stand down in the wake of the party's electoral drubbing in May.

But some members of the Scottish group of Labour MPs fear that going into next year's local council elections with a leader who was rejected by Scottish voters could lead to further losses. Henry, a former deputy justice minister, said: "I don't have a problem with Johann being a caretaker leader. I'll wait and see what happens. Iain has done a good job after the election though."

Lord Foulkes said he had heard suggestions that Lamont could take charge for a year. He said: "I've heard this being said by MPs, but I've also heard people suggest that Iain should continue. I can see the advantages of both."

A senior Labour source at Westminster said: "Having a caretaker leader for a year was raised at the meeting Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack were at to discuss the review. There are some people who see this as a way of promoting Johann's politics. But it wasn't a universal view and there were arguments against."

Katy Clark, Labour MP North Ayrshire and Arran, called for a leadership election "as soon as possible".

"We need to get a leader elected so that they can get on with the job well ahead of next year's local elections," she said.