JEREMY Corbyn commandeered Kezia Dugdale’s office for a private summit with the man being secretly touted to replace her as Scottish Labour leader – six months before she quit.
The hour-long meeting took place in a room earmarked for Ms Dugdale to work from during this year’s Labour conference in Perth, according to senior party sources.
The one-to-one chat was arranged after Mr Corbyn made it clear he “was keen to spend considerable time on his own with him [Richard Leonard, MSP for Central Scotland].”
We can reveal the meeting just days after interim Scottish leader Alex Rowley was caught on tape admitting Mr Leonard had been his preferred candidate to take over from Ms Dugdale “for some time”.
The embarrassing recording also implied that Mr Rowley, and other left-wing Scottish Labour MSPs, did not believe Ms Dugdale should lead them into another Holyrood election and it would be better if Mr Leonard took over.
On tape, he said: “We, privately, we didn’t believe Kezia would be there in 2021.”
He said her resignation was a surprise before adding: “Our view was that Richard was the best person and therefore we should go with that plan. But he has now to get elected of course.”
Supporters of Mr Leonard, a prominent trade unionist and supporter of Mr Corbyn, dismissed “conspiracy theories” around the closeness between left-wing MSPs and the UK leadership team.
But a source close to Ms Dugdale said: “At the 2017 party conference in Perth, Jeremy Corbyn – in Kezia’s company – ordered an aide to find Richard and they spent an hour together privately in Kezia’s office.
“It was unusual and just seemed a bit off. Maybe what we learned from Alex Rowley last week put it in perspective.”
Yesterday, both Mr Corbyn and Mr Leonard’s teams insisted the discussion largely centred on the MSP’s economic brief and was a relatively short meeting.
One source said: “I can assure you there were no plots being discussed. Richard Leonard is a thoroughly decent human being and doesn’t have that in his character.”
Ms Dugdale refused to comment.
The emergence of Mr Rowley’s recording at the party’s Brighton conference, after he had insisted he had no favourite in the leadership contest between Mr Leonard and Anas Sarwar, sparked fury among fellow MSPs.
Lothians MSP Neil Findlay, a supporter of Mr Leonard’s leadership campaign, said: “Some of the conspiracy theories whizzing around are only in the minds of the people who are making them up.
“What we need to do is get back to fighting every day to get rid of the SNP and the Tories who are undermining our public services, failing our NHS and have no policies to tackle the gross inequalities across Scotland and the UK.”
Insiders claim, however, that pressure from the left had “taken its toll” on Ms Dugdale before she dramatically stepped down last month.
“Corbyn and Kez got on OK actually but it was always clear from his wing of the party they were ready to step in when they felt the time was right,” the insider said.
“There was no obvious left wing candidate for a long time and remember there was also a long period where it looked like Corbyn was doomed, but that didn’t stop them chipping away or chipping in at the most unhelpful times.
“It took up a lot of energy and time to manage all of this and that will have taken its toll on Kez.”
Last week, Mr Rowley also revealed that he had been given only 10 minutes’ notice that Ms Dugdale was resigning. In response, she said that anyone suspecting there are some serious issues at the top of the Scottish party would not be wrong.
Mr Rowley has resisted calls for him to stand down as chairman of the group deciding which new members can vote in the leadership contest.