THE formal selection process for candidates may not begin for many months but the battle to become the SNP’s candidate for a key constituency is well and truly under way.

Three big hitters – MP Joanna Cherry, former SNP depute leader Angus Robertson and MEP Alyn Smith – are weighing up their chances of being the politician local party members select to oust Ruth Davidson and regain Edinburgh Central for the SNP.

The Scottish Conservative leader took the seat three years ago after its SNP MSP Marco Biagi – a minister in the Scottish Government – stood down, taking early retirement from politics to pursue a new career in academia.

READ MORE: Greens urged to step aside in election for Ruth Davidson's constituency

In May 2016, Davidson beat the SNP’s Allison Dickie by just 610 votes and Nicola Sturgeon’s party is determined to win the seat back.

Smith was the first name in the frame as the party’s possible candidate when rumours began to circulate last year the long-serving MEP was considering putting his hat into the ring.

And last weekend it emerged Robertson was being talked about as another prospective candidate.

The former SNP depute leader, who grew up in the constituency, lost his Moray Westminster seat in the 2017 snap election and has recently returned to the area to set up a pro-independence research company and to prepare for fatherhood for the first time with his wife Jennifer.

There’s no doubt that Robertson would be a popular candidate for selection. As the party’s group leader at Westminster, he established an impressive reputation after a series of strong performances at Prime Minister’s Questions.

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And he impressively managed the huge increase in the group’s size in the 2015 General Election. His victory in the depute leader contest was a comfortable one.

Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, a QC and the party’s home affairs spokeswoman at Westminster, emerged last week as a third high-flying candidate who may decide to stand for selection.

In the midst of the Brexit turmoil, the senior lawyer has come to prominence with her trail blazing campaign at Westminster to stop the process of leaving the EU, with her amendment to revoke Article 50 gathering cross-party support – and catching the First Minister’s eye.

She also played a prominent role in the group of Scottish politicians who established Westminster’s legal right to revoke Article 50 unilaterally.

“Genuinely can’t think of any good reason why Labour MPs would not vote for @joannaccherry option tonight. It provides an insurance policy against a no-deal Brexit – and doesn’t mean that Article 50 couldn’t be triggered again in future if UK manages to work out what it wants,” Sturgeon tweeted ahead of the Commons’ indicatives votes on Monday.

Such is Cherry’s profile that some in the party are now talking about her as a future Holyrood minister and even a potential party leader.

“Nicola is doing a fantastic job but she won’t want to go on forever and I could see Joanna as her successor,” one party member told us.

A second added: “Joanna has certainly got a stature and an impressive professional background. It would be hard not to see her in Cabinet if she became an MSP – and that immediately makes her a contender.”

He continued: “Joanna has no shortage of profile from Brexit work and she is outspoken on a second indyref. She’s relishing taking on Ruth.”

But some in the party are unhappy about Cherry’s hopes to stand in Edinburgh Central and they believe they may be a response to suggestions that her Westminster seat could disappear through boundary changes.

However they do not believe these boundary changes will happen any time soon. “There is no chance of boundary changes going through Westminster now or in time for the next election,” one source told The Sunday National.

“Joanna Cherry has a really important job to do in the House of Commons and has pledged to run again in Edinburgh South West. SNP selection proceedings for the Scottish Parliament will take place within the next 12 months.

‘‘I don’t expect Joanna Cherry would ditch her current constituency and her public commitments, because she knows it would cause massive problems for the SNP, including new candidate selection and in certain circumstances a potential by-election.

‘‘I expect the Edinburgh Central race for the Scottish Parliament will involve Angus Robertson and potentially some other candidates who have not yet declared.”

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Cherry responded: “I am very much committed to Edinburgh South West and I very much expect there will be a General Election at some point and I look forward to fighting it – and I am reasonably confident I would win the seat. At the last general election the Conservative Party targeted a number of the SNP MPs. Only two of those targeted survived – Pete Wishart with a majority of 27 and myself with a majority of 1097.”

She added: “The fact I managed to defend the seat from a concerted Tory onslaught is tribute to my high profile in the constituency and the fact I hold regular surgeries.

‘‘I am a long-standing member of the Edinburgh Central branch and members there are conscious of the boundary review plans to abolition the Edinburgh South West seat and have actively sought me out to consider standing for the Edinburgh Central seat against Ruth Davidson. As presently advised I have no plans to do so, but I am not ruling myself out depending on what happens.”

She continued: “I am hoping there will be an independence referendum soon and there won’t be any Westminster seats in five or six years time.”

So why the huge appeal in Edinburgh Central? Why the massive interest in taking on Ruth Davidson? Why is there not the same focus on taking on Labour’s Daniel Johnson in Edinburgh South or the LibDem’s in Edinburgh West?

One reason is, of course, that Davidson represents the bigger scalp.

‘‘Whoever ousts Davidson will have his or her name in the SNP history books,” said one senior source.

Then, of course, there is the desirability of the seat itself. The constituency spans some of the most beautiful urban areas in the world – Edinburgh’s Old and New Town– which was designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1995.

Along with the university area of Newington to the south and Gorgie and Dalry to the west it is is a vibrant, bustling and interesting community.

“The constituency is very diverse, very mixed. There are a lot of students, particularly in the southside around the university.

“There are a lot of EU nationals, who can vote in the Scottish Parliament elections and are very fed up with Brexit, how they have been treated. They will be angry with the Tories for being cheer leaders for that,” explained one person who knows the area well.

“You’ve also got the people in the posh houses in the New Town – but not everyone who lives in £1 million house votes Conservative.

“There’s a fair few of the chattering classes living there who wouldn’t be caught dead voting Tory. It’s full of creative types and the lefty liberal intelligentsia.”

Lastly, Edinburgh Central is highly winnable. Davidson beat Dickie in 2016 by just 610 votes and SNP insiders believe their party would be very well placed to take the seat back.

Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh Western and Johnson in Edinburgh Southern are regarded as a harder challenge, with the former winning his seat with a majority of 2960 and the latter by 1123.

Whoever decides to stand, it’s certain that all eyes will be on Edinburgh Central in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election campaign.

And ahead of that, the 1400 SNP members in Edinburgh Central branch will face a gripping internal contest. As one of those who will be voting said: “The prospect of Angus, Joanna and maybe even Alyn means it’s shaping up to be the hottest constituency race in the country.”