SCOTLAND'S embattled chief constable stood down amid fears the man most widely tipped to succeed him would quit if he did failed to do so.

Phil Gormley finally resigned on Wednesday after seven months on gardening leave pending multiple investigations in to allegations he bullied subordinates.

Mr Gormley's departure paves the way for his most senior deputy, Iain Livingstone, to take over the top job after acting as caretaker for months.

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However, The Herald can reveal that there were widespread concerns within Scottish policing that Mr Livingstone would have retired had Mr Gormley returned to work.

Read more: Kenny MacAskill: An unwelcome houseguest, Gormley had to go

Insiders stress that relations between Mr Gormley and his lieutenants had come under extreme strain before he went on "special" paid leave in September.

Mr Livingstone, Police Scotland's designated deputy chief constable had even announced his retirement in July, despite being only 50 widely assumed to be Mr Gormley's obvious successor.

There were also fears other senior officers would have sought to move on if Mr Gormley returned to work. It is understood he took leave - authorised by his watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority, or SPA - as it emerged that one of the people who accused him of bullying was one of his assistant chief constables, Malcolm Graham.

Read more: Who is the frontrunner to replace departed chief constable

Niven Rennie, a former head of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said: "If Phil Gormley had come back we would have run the risk of losing Iain Livingstone.

"Now he is the clear frontrunner for the job, provided he wants it.

I don't think they can give it to anyone else. After all, he was the person who should have got the job last time round and he has brought stability for the last six months."

Mr Gormley has always denied any wrongdoing but yesterday appeared to acknowledge that a "meaningful" return to duties would be impossible before his current contract ends in January 2019.

Mr Gormley had been told by the SPA in November that he could return to work, but that decision was reversed after the Justice Secretary questioned "clear deficiencies" in the body's decision-making process.

Read more: Kenny MacAskill: An unwelcome houseguest, Gormley had to go

Essentially the SPA had failed to ensure support for the men and women who had complained about Mr Gormley and any witnesses to his alleged misconduct. Mr Livingstone confirmed this to Holyrood.

Mr Gormley, who was facing seven allegations, has always denied any wrongdoing.

In a statement issued through the SPA, he said "events since November 2017 have led me to the conclusion that it is impossible for me to resume my duties in a meaningful way prior to the end of my contract".

He added: "I now need to prioritise the health and well-being of my family on whom these events have taken a significant toll."

Read more: Who is the frontrunner to replace departed chief constable

Mr Gormley was widely seen as having burnt his bridges with the force and its regulators. His wife even wrote an article for a newspaper suggesting the chief constable's problems were the result of speaking with an English accent.

His departure marks a period of renewal across the leadership of Scottish policing. Andrew Flanagan, the chairman of the SPA who appointed him and tried to let him go back to work has been replaced by a former Labour minister, Susan Deacon.

Ms Deacon is understood to be eager to draw a line under the matter. In A statement she praised Mr Gormley, singling out his contribution to a current 10-year plan for the force. But she added: "This has been a challenging period for all concerned, and in the interest of policing in Scotland we now need to move on."

Professor Deacon will be responsible for looking for a replacement for Mr Gormley, who leaves the force with unspecified untaken holiday pay and three months' notice, more than £50,000.

His lawyer has heavily criticised Mr Matheson for what he sees as an intervention in November there was "no lawful basis" for the justice secretary's intervention.

The independent Police Investigations and Review Commissioner or Pirc had been looking at four of the seven allegations of gross misconduct. Mr Gormley can no longer be subject to any misconduct hearings. It is understood Pirc information gathered will be passed on to the SPA. Police watchers stressed that such data may become useful if Mr Gormley decides to sue the SPA, his formal employers, at any later date.