Willie Rennie has announced he is to stand aside as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Rennie said it “is time for a fresh face to lead our party forward” after being in charge through “11 elections and referendums over ten years and a global pandemic”.
In a video recorded by Rennie on a hill climb, he thanked the people of north-east Fife for re-electing him, adding: “I will continue to work for you.”
He said: “I have always believed that politics can be a vehicle to tackle the big issues and transform the lives of the people we are elected to serve.
“That’s why we have championed the case for better mental health services, world class schools and investment for early years education.
“Ours was the lone but important voice speaking out against the centralisation of Scotland’s police and for a more liberal justice system.”
“Standing up for Scotland’s place in the UK and in Europe is second nature to us. The divisive debates that have dominated our country over these issues have inflicted damage within families, communities and the economy.
“Scotland deserves a strong progressive alternative to the twin nationalisms represented by the SNP and Conservatives. They polarise and divide Scotland when we should unite to overcome the enormous challenges we face, from Covid-19 to climate change to the inequalities that continue to stain our society.”
After the last Scottish Parliament election in May, Rennie conceded it was “frustrating” his party had not been able to gain more votes, even though he said that “our message clearly got through and had a big appeal on the doorsteps in our strongest areas”.
Issues he highlighted as being important in the next five years included mental health, early years education, an industrial strategy for recovery, and action on the climate emergency which he also mentioned in the video.
“Over the last decade there have been both gains and losses along the way, but I have enjoyed every effort. I love a good campaign,” he said.
“But it is time for a fresh face to lead our party forward.
“To the people of North East Fife, thank you for re-electing me in May. I will continue to work for you.
“To the members of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, it has been a privilege to lead you. I look forward to campaigning with you again soon – we have elections to win.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon paid tribute to Rennie following the announcement.
She tweeted: “Best wishes to Willie Rennie. Despite our political disagreements, I’ve always respected his commitment and decency.
“Political leadership takes its toll and, after 10 years at the helm of his party, I’m sure he is looking forward to new challenges.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “It’s not been a quiet 10 years in Scottish politics…
“Throughout it all, Willie Rennie has led with humour, positivity, energy and compassion. He is a good friend and an inspiration to all those that love a photo-op.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said “Scottish election photo ops will never be the same again”.
He wrote on Twitter: “Best wishes to Willie. He’s been leader all the way through a rollercoaster decade in Scottish politics and I hope he now gets to enjoy a lot more well-deserved time with family.”
North East Fife MP and Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain tweeted: “@willie_rennie isn’t just my constituency colleague, he’s my friend.
“He’s also the reason why I’m an MP because he asked me to stand.
“Thanks for everything you have done for the party in the last decade. Looking forward to knocking doors with you soon!”
Party leader Sir Ed Davey said: “From banging the drum on mental health and education to those amazing photo-ops, Willie Rennie has been a fantastic leader, he is the best of us.
“Delighted he is sticking around as an MSP. Our party and our country need him.”
Analysis by Alison McCallum
Willie Rennie has been at the helm of the the Scottish Liberal Democrats for more than a decade. In that time he’s led the party through elections, the independence referendum and the Brexit vote.
For many people, he’s become known as the face of election campaigning – the one who doesn’t shy away from an adventurous photo-op, often involving animals. But that enthusiasm has never quite translated into votes. The party is now the smallest group in Holyrood and, during his tenure, their number of MSPs has fallen.
In his statement annoucing his resignation, he says he is proud that the party has championed the case for better mental health services and was a voice for remaining in the EU following the Brexit referendum.
The party is meeting on Monday night to decide how his successor will be chosen. One person many are anticipating to put his name forward is Edinburgh MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton. But whoever takes on the tole will have the job of charting the party back to mainstream success.