IF there was a symbol of how far the Lib Dems have fallen in the last few months it was the image of the party’s new leader, Tim Farron, making his contribution to the “debate” on the Queen breaking Queen Victoria’s record as the longest-serving British monarch.
The Lib Dem leader was the fifth person to be called, not just behind Labour and the SNP but also the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, whose party holds the same number of seats. As Farron spoke the rest of the Commons chamber, which had been respectfully silent throughout, broke out into a hubbub of conversations, making it clear that nobody was interested in his contribution. Not even Speaker John Bercow intervened to shut them up.
It really shows what a difference a year makes, as the Lib Dems hold their conference in Bournemouth this week. Just 12 months ago, at the conference in Glasgow, they were the third party with 56 MPs, junior partners in government and there was still huge attendance from the media to listen to what its big figures, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable, had to say.
Now almost nobody cares. Media attendance at the conference is minimal, and in at least one national paper’s case, accidental, because the booking system was still geared up to sending journalists there.
Yet this week an optimistic Mr Farron has declared that now is his party’s time. He believes the election of a hard left Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will see many disaffected centrists from the party flock to the Lib Dems, including some MPs.
He is correct that many on the right of the Labour Party – and the Blairites in particular – are deeply unhappy, but he may well be wrong in thinking the Lib Dems will be the main beneficiaries.
To begin with, the only name of a possible defector we know of is Jenny Tonge, a Lib Dem peer who wants to join Mr Corbyn because of his support for the terrorist group Hamas. Then the only evidence of Labour MPs wishing to leave appears to be more of defectors going to the Tories.
The fact is that the Lib Dems are such a broken brand after their part in the “austerity” coalition and the debacle of tuition fees that nobody wants to risk their political careers by joining them.
There is also a problem for the libertarian Farron in that the Blairites disagree with him profoundly over his absolute support for civil liberties and doubts over renewing Trident.
The reality is that if there is another SDP-style breakaway from Labour – and that looks unlikely at the moment – then it may be up to Mr Farron to decide whether to join them and ditch the failing Lib Dem image.
As Margaret Thatcher rather hastily once proclaimed, maybe now “the parrot is dead”.