Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has quit after admitting the speculation over his future had become a distraction.
The Central Scotland MSP has held the post for three years but has decided to step down with immediate effect, having considered his future over the festive period.
He said: “I have come to the conclusion it is in the best interests of the party that I step aside as leader of Scottish Labour with immediate effect.
“This was not an easy decision, but after three years I feel it is the right one for me and for the party.
Amid grim polling projections ahead of the May election, Mr Leonard had been under pressure to resign from senior figures in the party.
He said: “I have thought long and hard over the Christmas period about what this (pandemic) crisis means, and the approach Scottish Labour takes to help tackle it.
“I have also considered what the speculation about my leadership does to our ability to get Labour’s message across. This has become a distraction.”
He added: “I want to thank all those people who placed their hopes in me, and who worked with me in good times and bad. This experience and the great people I have met will live with me forever.
“I owe a huge debt in particular to all those party members who work tirelessly for the cause of Labour.”
‘Scotland needs a Labour government’
Mr Leonard added: “Scotland needs a Labour government now more than ever before. Our National Health Service and public services are at breaking point under the strain of an out-of-control pandemic.
“Covid is rampant, claiming lives, and striking down so many of our fellow citizens, who are grievously suffering from this awful virus.
“Workers’ incomes are being squeezed like never before, with job losses rife and businesses going bust. Too many employees go to work day-in and day-out, night-in and night-out leaving, them vulnerable to the virus.
“Both governments have mishandled their response to Covid, with devastating consequences, not least in our care homes. It is essential now that we have an accelerated vaccine roll out – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to ensure that the most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected against Covid, and that the general population is given greater protection as quickly as possible after that.
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, said Mr Leonard led Scottish Labour through “one of the most challenging and difficult periods in our country’s history”, including a general election and a pandemic.
He added: “Even from opposition, he has achieved a considerable amount for which he should be very proud.
“This includes securing a commitment for the creation of a national care service, securing action on a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to deal with youth unemployment, securing a human rights-based public inquiry into the treatment of care home residents during the Covid pandemic and securing support for a Fair Rents Bill to give new rights to tenants.
“He has done so with dedication to the values of our movement.
“I wish Richard the very best for the future as one of our MSPs and know that he will continue to play an important role in Scottish Labour.”