Inside the Tory battle to hold on to Ruth Davidson's Edinburgh Central seat

It was the scene of the biggest success for the Scottish Conservatives during the 2016 Holyrood election, and is considered by many to be the battleground for the future leadership of the SNP.

Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson celebrates being elected Conservative MSP for Edinburgh Central at the Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, on May 6, 2016

But, four years ago the fight for the constituency seat of Edinburgh Central marked a changing of the guard and the high point of the Scottish Conservative Party's assault on Labour's second place billing in Holyrood, and as the biggest unionist party representing the country.

As a microcosm of the Ruth Davidson-focused national campaign in 2016 from the Conservatives, the victory in the Capital successfully challenged the symbolic home of the Labour-SNP hegemony which dominated Scottish politics since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

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Four years on and the political landscape has shifted. Despite a narrowing in the gap in late 2017 and 2018 when the Tories were as close as 12 points behind the SNP, the diminishing threat of an imminent second independence referendum due to Covid-19 and the SNP’s widely popular handling of the Covid-19 crisis has seen it surge to a more than a 30 per cent lead in the most recent polls.

Joanna Mowat is Conservative councillor for City Centre Ward and in the running to step into Ruth Davidson's shoes

Support for Scottish Independence has grown, and as the battle between nationalist heavyweights Joanna Cherry and Angus Robertson for the reins of the SNP rages on, many pundits see Edinburgh Central as a foregone conclusion. Inevitably, they say, whoever wins the hearts and minds of the SNP membership will win the seat.

Inside the corridors of Holyrood and of Conservative clubs across the capital, the view is more mixed. Some are writing Edinburgh Central off, viewing the seat in which the parliament sits as a “lost cause” and one for a perennial loser or a young upstart keen for campaigning experience but whose time is yet to come.

Others can sense the opportunity, focusing on the failures of the SNP-Labour coalition controlling Edinburgh City Chambers which lurches from crisis to crisis on city centre issues from the Christmas Market scandal and burning memorial benches, all while barreling on forward with the controversial tram extension.

The selection process is still ongoing with a final shortlist of four yet to be drawn up by the party, but familiar names to those following the Capital’s political sphere are already lining up for the right to follow their former leader.

Iain Whyte is the leader of the Conservative group at Edinburgh City Council

“I can’t see why the SNP have a natural right to something”, said Tory group leader at Edinburgh City Council Iain Whyte, considered by some within the party to be among one of five or six serious contenders for the candidacy.

“While it may have been a surprise to some that Ruth won it, it is not much of a surprise when you look at the demographics of the seat” adds Whyte.

Another front-runner, the well-liked and personable Iain McGill, is also being touted by many to be in pole position despite having stood for election 14 times, losing every vote.

A popular figure within the party and an experienced campaigner, McGill is considered to be next in line for the candidacy, with one well-placed senior Tory adding he would have stood in 2016 in the seat if Davidson had not moved across from Glasgow.

Cllr Susan Webber, considered an outside bet for the candidacy

“My name is in the hat,” says McGill. “It is a plum seat and it will be a hell of a fight to get and then a hell of a fight to beat the SNP. It was close last time and it will be close this time.

“It will be a big decision for the members to make,” he adds. “The kitchen sink will be thrown by both sides.”

One senior Tory said: “Iain is the clear front runner. The nature of the grassroots party changed fundamentally when Ruth became leader. Over time they became much more supportive of Iain McGill. The membership appreciates that sense of commitment and sticking with the party in good and bad.

He added: “McGill’s campaign ability compared to other candidates is head and shoulders above the rest. He is a grafter when it comes to the grassroots stuff.”

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former Westminster leader, is claimed to be considering running in Edinburgh Central, which Ruth Davidson won in 2016.

However, one front-runner expressed dismay at the possibility of McGill being chosen. “I would be devastated if Iain McGill got selected to stand in this seat. He has been selected so many times and we need someone new,” they said. “If McGill won I would be very upset, that to me would be the party saying we are going to stick with the same old same old.”

Councillor Joanna Mowat topped the polling at both the 2012 and 2017 council elections in the city centre ward and is also likely to be shortlisted. Alongside Susan Webber, a first-term councillor who recently was given the high-profile transport brief for the council group, the two represent the best hope of a woman replacing the political behemoth that was Davidson.

No-one in the Conservatives is keen to be accused of tokenism, but as one candidate said, none of the five Edinburgh seats so far selected have had a woman chosen, and the whole party is aware of the potential negative optics of replacing their most successful female politician with a man.

However, Mowat’s credentials as a safe pair of hands on the council, alongside Whyte, is not viewed universally as a positive. One candidate questioned Mowat’s ambition, while another source close to Davidson’s 2016 campaign said council experience could work against her.

They said: “There has been a real trend in the Tory party that if you are a councillor somewhere and you are doing a very good job, it kind of counts against you when going for parliamentary seats.

“Iain Whyte has got a lot of skills but he has been on the council for decades. He has done a very good job and has a high profile and a good record so that could count against him.”

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC, who has confirmed she would step down from Westminster if she is elected to a Holyrood seat.

The final serious contender is councillor and head of broadcast and online media for the Scottish Tories, Scott Douglas. Close to central office and leader Jackson Carlaw, Douglas is viewed by some as being a safe pair of hands and someone familiar with Holyrood and its inner machinations.

Choosing between council heavyweights Mowat and Whyte, “up and comers” and party favourites Douglas and Webber, and loyal grassroot favourites McGill and Balfour is a stark choice for the party, and one that ultimately could decide how close the Tories come to another shock win.

Almost universally, those within the party would prefer to face Joanna Cherry rather than the more “Tory friendly” Angus Robertson, although both will face a battle to convince voters they are not opportunists in their choice of seat having moved from Edinburgh South West and Moray respectively.

“Joanna is quite feisty and strident,” said one senior Edinburgh Tory, “Angus would be more of a threat as he is more genial. Joanna puts the backs up of some of our voters and could make people go out and vote.”

One front runner added: “Joanna would probably be the easier person to run against. She is quite divisive and she has rubbed some of her constituents up the wrong way and that might play a part as well.”

Whether Edinburgh Central is actually winnable separates the optimists from the pessimists within the Conservatives.

“The seat is a toss-up”, claimed one senior Tory, while another described the party’s chances as “slim” unless the Greens, key in taking votes away from the SNP in 2016, don’t stand a candidate. “If they stand someone it makes it even but still tough” one front-runner said.

Any campaign against either of the SNP heavyweights will be won at the grassroots level, the Tories believe, which opens the door to local, better-known candidates rather than perceived interlopers from elsewhere in the Capital.

That could be coupled with hitting the SNP “over the head” with council issues, described as a “treasure trove of failures that would not reflect well on the SNP whoever runs for that seat”, while national messaging will have a renewed focus on the NHS, schools and stopping the SNP.

One front-runner said: “Our message is going to be that they have failed to deliver on local issues, failed schools and the NHS and we need to get the basics right again.”

Another candidate added: “If we want to win it we are going to have to be out there knocking on doors because of the spotlight that is on it and get back to basics.

“We need to not be distracted by the politics that Joanna or Angus might bring to the table when in reality it is the same as any other seat in the country.

“The people are not really that interested in that sort of stuff, they want a good healthcare system and a good education. We will put a face to the name and be different to the names they see on TV.”

One leading contender added: “There are only two parties who can win that seat. Of course it is winnable, that is why everyone is going for it.”