Richard Leonard has been hailed as a “thoroughly decent man”, after he resigned as Scottish Labour leader.

The Central Scotland MSP announced the move on Thursday afternoon, saying he had made his decision to step down over the Christmas period.

Speculation about his position had become “a distraction”, Mr Leonard said in a statement, alluding to the attempts of three of his own MSPs to oust him in September.

Following his resignation, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Twitter: “Despite our political differences, I’ve always liked Richard Leonard. He is a decent guy and I wish him well for the future.”

Ruth Davidson, who stood down as leader of the Scottish Tories in 2019 before returning to lead the party at Holyrood, said: “When I stepped down in August 2019, I discovered that political resignations are odd things, like reading obituaries when you are still alive.

“Whatever else is written about Richard, I have to say I always found him a thoroughly decent man and a committed campaigner.”

Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard at the leadership election announcement
Anas Sarwar was defeated by Mr Leonard in the 2017 Scottish Labour leadership election (Jane Barlow/PA)

Anas Sarwar, who ran against the former leader in 2017 and could now be set for another attempt at the leadership, paid tribute to his former boss, saying: “Richard has led our party through one of the most difficult times in our history.

“He is Labour to his core, and we are all grateful for his service. I know he will continue to fight for a fairer, more just and more equal society today, tomorrow and long into the future.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said Mr Leonard’s commitment to Labour was shown in his decision to step aside.

He added: “Richard Leonard is a good man who cares deeply about his politics and his party.”

Some in the Labour Party were already assessing the leadership of Mr Leonard, just minutes after he announced his decision.

Former Scottish Labour general secretary Brian Roy said it was the correct move for him to step aside, adding on Twitter: “He has led Scot Lab to the lowest point in its history.

“His time as leader has been mired by bad decisions and poor performance.

“His leadership has hollowed out the party organisation and driven talented people out. Thankfully it is now time to turn the page.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, an outspoken supporter of Mr Leonard who plans to step down at this year’s Holyrood election, took aim at those who had sought to oust him last year, describing them as “traitors” and “cowards”.

He tweeted: “Looks like those who have led a 3 year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded.

“These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.”

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie took the opportunity to urge Labour voters to consider supporting his party in May, saying: “Scottish Labour could now field an entire football team of former leaders and acting leaders.

“The party has spent almost the entire devolution era fighting among itself, all the while letting down Scotland’s working class communities.

“Many Labour members have understandably become utterly disillusioned with their party’s constant infighting. I’d urge those members to take a look at our plans for a Green New Deal for workers, for public ownership and for tenants’ rights and consider joining us as we fight to build a better Scotland.”