SCOTTISH Labour could benefit from current internal divisions in the SNP and the unpopularity of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and return to second place in Holyrood in the forthcoming election, according to a former Labour party leader and first minister.

Henry McLeish said the party had to be realistic about its ambitions in the May poll after a string of disastrous election performances but said the political circumstances could be in its favour.

“It looks like it’s going to be a tough, tough election for Labour, but in some respects it could be a window of opportunity for the party if they are bold enough and move to provide a different platform,” he said.

“The SNP are in danger of seeing their discipline – which has been formidable as a party – breaking down. A party that has worked in a unified way now looks like a civil war has been ignited it in between the First Minister and her predecessor. A divided party going into an election is not positive.”

He said that the second circumstance helping Labour is Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative party.

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“I am optimistic on Labour [returning to the second party at Holyrood]. The Conservatives are in trouble, the Scottish party of the Conservative party is very unhappy about what is happening at Westminster.

“Johnson has proved not to be a friend of the Conservative party in Scotland. He has decided to take Scotland on regardless of what it costs. He has taken one year to achieve what Margaret Thatcher did in ten years.”

McLeish added: “Our expectations have got to be based on realism. What we want to do is defeat the Conservatives this year and we want to be the main opposition to the SNP.

“That would be clearly an opportunity to exclude the Unionism of the Tories which is the status quo and will not take Scotland further.

“But Labour has got to be honest with the Scottish people and say ‘look we’ve messed up for the last decade’...We’re not a party of independence, but we do want to see Scotland prosper and instead of just being negative – saying no second referendum – I would like the party to welcome a second referendum but not on the basis of what the SNP are proposing, but that Labour wants an alternative to status quo Unionism and are willing to see that go to a referendum at an appropriate point.”

McLeish’s intervention follows divisions in the SNP over the independence strategy, plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act and the Salmond saga – rows which intensified last week when Joanna Cherry was sacked from the party’s Westminster front bench.

Despite the internal rifts, opinion polls have suggested that the SNP is on course for a record fourth term government and with a Holyrood majority.

Last month one survey suggested that the splits in the party were having no impact on its popularity or on Sturgeon’s high approval ratings among Scottish voters. Some 20 successive polls have also recorded a majority in favour of independence.

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However, McLeish’s comments echo remarks made by some SNP figures over fears any continued infighting may have negative consequences come the Holyrood election.

Kevin Pringle, the SNP’s former PR chief, said last Sunday the party didn’t have the look of one heading for a majority, while Michael Russell, the Constitution Affairs Secretary called for calm.

McLeish also told The National he had yet to make up his mind about who he would vote for in the Labour leadership race. He described both Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon as “good candidates”. The ballot opened on Tuesday and the winner will be announced on February 27.

A Scottish Labour spokesperson said: “All parties have a lot of work ahead in the run-up to the Scottish elections. And the entire focus of Scottish Labour’s efforts will be on rebuilding the country after the Covid pandemic, investing in businesses and creating jobs and helping the NHS to recover.”

An SNP spokesperson added: “It really speaks volumes for the demise of Scottish Labour that even their former leader Henry McLeish admits they have no chance of winning the election in May.”