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McLeish resignation Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 19:59 GMT
Starting gun sounds in leadership race
Henry McLeish and his wife Julie leave the Scottish Parliament
Henry McLeish and his wife Julie leave the parliament
By BBC News Online Scotland's Brian Ponsonby

Betting has already started on who will succeed Henry McLeish as Scotland's first minister.

Most bookmakers have installed Education Minister Jack McConnell as favourite, with several of his cabinet colleagues also quoted.

Under the Scotland Act, Mr McLeish's successor must be appointed within 28 days.

He announced his resignation to MSPs on Thursday afternoon after several weeks of sustained criticism over office expenses he claimed while a Westminster MP.

Jim Wallace
Jim Wallace will act as interim first minister
Mr McLeish's decision means that the Scottish Labour Party must now elect a new leader and then nominate the successful candidate for the post of first minister.

In the interim, the Scottish Cabinet has agreed to nominate Jim Wallace as acting first minister.

The Liberal Democrat leader, who is currently deputy first minister, has taken charge of the country twice before in place of the late Donald Dewar.

Labour elects each new leader using an electoral college system where the successful candidate has to secure enough support from MSPs, trade unions and ordinary party members.

This system was not used in the aftermath of Donald Dewar's death as it was felt that it could not be concluded in time to meet the time limit set by the Scotland Act's 28-day rule.

Coalition partners

Instead, Mr McLeish was elected as interim leader by a secret ballot of the party's 54 MSPs and 27 members of the national executive committee.

He was later elected as first minister with the support of Labour's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

One senior party figure has already stated that this shortcut process will not be used to elect Mr McLeish's successor.

Cathy Jamieson, the MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and Labour's deputy leader in Scotland, said a full electoral college would be set up to choose the new leader.

Jack McConnell
Jack McConnell is the leadership favourite
She said the party's executive is due to meet on Saturday, when a timetable for the leadership election will be agreed.

The dilemma now facing several senior Labour figures is whether or not to stand.

Mr McConnell, who was narrowly pipped for the first minister's post by Henry McLeish last year, has strong support among backbench MSPs but is thought to be weaker among the unions and grass roots supporters.

He is likely to face stiff competition from several Labour cabinet colleagues who are also known to have ambitions for the top job.

Enterprise Minister Wendy Alexander was known to be a 'favourite' of Donald Dewar's and could view this as the ideal time to throw her hat in the ring.

Internal divisions

Health Minister Susan Deacon may also be a contender and Finance Minister Angus Mackay will also consider his position.

The real danger for the Labour Party is that the contest may inflame the internal divisions and rivalries which exist among ministers.

The need for a dignified succession after Mr Dewar's death kept many of these in check, but they are likely to re-emerge amid the fallout from Mr McLeish's resignation.

A bitter contest for the leadership could also plunge the party into civil war - something it desperately wants to avoid in the run-up to the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections.

Holding together a party fractured by such a contest could yet be the toughest task facing Scottish Labour's new leader and first minister elect.

BBC Scotland's Hayley Millar
"Jack McConnell has emerged as heir apparent"

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See also:

08 Nov 01 | Scotland
08 Nov 01 | Scotland
06 Nov 01 | Scotland
06 Nov 01 | Scotland
06 Nov 01 | Scotland
23 Oct 01 | Scotland
04 Oct 01 | Scotland
08 Nov 01 | McLeish resignation
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