Drum beats in Midlands election battle

Image caption The debate was held at The Drum arts centre on Wednesday

What do Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise have in common with Sajid Javid, Tristram Hunt, Nigel Farage and Lorely Burt?

And do please resist the temptation to tell me they were or are all clowns!

The answer is that they have all appeared at the theatre formerly known as the Aston Hippodrome in Birmingham, now reincarnated as The Drum arts centre.

How appropriate that the culmination of our BBC Midlands Today coverage of this most dramatic and unpredictable campaign should take place in its auditorium.

Immigration and HS2

For the record, UKIP leader Nigel Farage's appearance at the same venue was the following evening, screened nationally on BBC One following the Question Time special with Messrs Cameron, Miliband and Clegg.

Our Midlands Today encounter, hosted by Mary Rhodes, with questions from a very lively and impeccably balanced audience, confirmed yet again the talking points which are dominating conversations on the doorsteps here - immigration, the economy and high-speed rail.

But perhaps inevitably the first exchanges were about the NHS.

UKIP's Deputy Chairman Suzanne Evans delivered the quip of the night by telling us the service needed "fewer spin doctors and more real doctors".

She's UKIP's candidate in Shrewsbury and Atcham and widely tipped to inherit the leadership if Nigel Farage fails in Thanet South.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption HS2 was one of a number of issues raised in the BBC Midlands Today debate

Will Duckworth, the Green Party's candidate for Dudley North, hinted at his party's left of centre credentials, attacking "capitalists" profiting from health, for example, through hospital car parking charges.

Lorely Burt, defending Solihull for the Liberal Democrats, said hers was alone among the major parties in having a fully worked-out plan to bring together all the various parts of the NHS around the needs of the individual, with budgets fully costed.

Tristram Hunt, defending Stoke-on-Trent Central for Labour, warned the audience that they were right to be afraid of further privatisation of health services if the Conservatives were returned to government, because Staffordshire's end of life care was heading in that direction already.

But Sajid Javid, defending Bromsgrove for the Conservatives, pointed out that private sector involvement in the NHS had gone up by just 1% over the past five years, from a modest 3% to only 4%.

He then drove home the Tories' core message that you can't have a successful NHS without a successful economy, hence their extra £8bn.

Ultra-marginal seat

Perhaps the defining moment of the programme came right at the end, when Mary Rhodes invited each of them in turn to present their 15-second manifesto.

As if to underline yet again the crucial role of our contests here in next week's general election, over the past three days Solihull, that key Liberal Democrat ultra-marginal and number one Conservative target has seen visits from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Balls.

Image caption The debate at The Drum was at times quite heated

With only three seats in a region of 63 constituencies, the Liberal Democrats can ill afford to lose any at all.

Bestriding our realm like a colossus, Jeremy Vine has been giving the West Midlands battlefield his full digitally enhanced treatment.

In the meantime, I am busy preparing for our final Sunday Politics Midlands programme before polling day

Joining me in the studio will be Conservative Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who defends Bromsgrove; the Shadow Housing Minister Emma Reynolds, who defends Wolverhampton North East for Labour; Lorely Burt, who defends Solihull and Councillor Bill Etheridge MEP, who is UKIP's candidate in their prime Midlands target seat of Dudley North.

So what will we all be talking about? Why guess on Friday when we'll know on Sunday? Join us and find out.

I did say this campaign is dramatic and unpredictable.

Watch Sunday Politics Midlands live at 11:00 BST on BBC One.

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