MARIE Rimmer has been dramatically ousted as the leader of St Helens Council after losing out in a power struggle to her deputy Barrie Grunewald.

In what insiders have described as a tense and at times hostile meeting on Tuesday night, St Helens Labour councillors voted by a slim majority to elect Grunewald as their party leader, therefore deposing Rimmer, the veteran politician.

The Star understands 67-year-old Rimmer did not want to stand down but Grunewald embarked on a direct challenge for the leadership, securing the vote by 22 to 18.

It is believed Rimmer had been away on holiday in Turkey until Tuesday, returning to discover the position she has held three times was under threat.

Sources described the events “as like the night of the long knives” and said there was now a huge split in the local Labour party.

The meeting, St Helens Labour’s annual AGM at the town hall, was overseen by a representative of Labour’s regional office and the source expressed disappointment and anger that councillors had not been given the democratic right to debate the leadership.

With Labour controlling the town hall, its leader assumes authority of the council, meaning Grunewald, a Rainhill councillor, will step up.

It is expected Rimmer, who has led the council over various spells since the 1980s, will remain in office until a full council meeting next Wednesday, when she will officially relinquish the reins.

It is thought the move to replace her was led by elements of the Labour Party in St Helens, which felt the time was right to look for a fresh direction and ideas.

But with the vote underlining that the party was divided over the leadership – and with Rimmer’s sister, Marlene Quinn, and niece, Carole Gill, both councillors, Grunewald will also be tasked with mending rifts within the party.

In a statement released following the meeting, Grunewald said: “I am grateful to my colleagues in the Labour Group for their trust and support in electing me to lead the council during what is an extremely challenging time for our town.

“I would also like to pay tribute to the work my predecessor Coun Rimmer has done as leader of the council.

“Since 2010, St Helens has lost £50 million from its budget because of government funding cuts - equivalent of £284 for every person in the borough.

“We now have one in four children in the town growing up in poverty and the council has been forced to shed more than 1000 jobs.

“I am determined that our town will not slide backwards and that the hard-fought for improvements we have seen over the last decade will not be lost.”

Cllr Grunewald, who is Scottish, arrived on St Helens’ political scene in 2007 as parliamentary assistant for Shaun Woodward, the Labour MP.

He was elected as a councillor for Rainhill several years ago and swiftly took an influential role in the party, securing the deputy leadership of the council after Labour regained control in 2010.