Right now the Liberal Party of Australia is in its most deleterious position since 1946. The situation is growing bleaker because of the likelihood that the so-called teal independents will challenge the Liberal Party in some seats in the Victorian election in November, and the difficulties being experienced by the Liberals in NSW ahead of the state election in March next year.

Robert Menzies was primarily responsible for the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944. He led the party to the September 1946 election in the confident expectation that Ben Chifley’s Labor government would be defeated. However, Chifley led Labor to one of its greatest victories and Menzies seriously thought about retiring from politics.

Menzies stayed on, though, and prevailed over Chifley in December 1949. He was assisted by a Labor own goal – Chifley’s (unsuccessful) obsession to nationalise the private trading banks. Menzies rode to victory on a campaign of opposition to Labor’s socialist intentions and retired in January 1966, aged 71, having won seven elections in a row.

At the end of 1946, Menzies’ political future looked as bleak as that of current Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton today. It may be that Dutton will leave politics as a Liberal leader who never became prime minister, like Bill Snedden, Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, Alexander Downer and Brendan Nelson. Certainly that’s the way it looks now, with some commentators predicting that Anthony Albanese’s Labor govern­ment is destined to last for at least three terms.

But, as in 1946, economic realities can change political circumstances. To the extent that Labor presides over a strong economy with moderate power prices and assured energy supply, it is likely to prevail over the Coalition. However, as the saying goes, it is unwise to make predictions, especially about the future.

It’s interesting to note that of the five Liberal leaders who did not make it to the Lodge in Canberra, only one disowned the party; namely Hewson, who constantly rails against the Liberal Party and the Nationals.

However, of the nine Liberals who became prime minister – Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison – as many as a third ended up working against the party that made it possible for them to achieve Australia’s highest political office.

Certainly for a while in his final years, when Gorton, McMahon and Snedden were Liberal leaders, Menzies became disillusioned with his political creation – but only to the extent of giving his first preference to the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party ahead of the Liberal Party in the (then) safe Liberal seat of Kooyong. The DLP, in turn, preferenced the Coalition ahead of Labor.

There is no evidence that Menzies ever preferred a Labor victory to a Coalition one. Moreover, when Fraser became Liberal leader and the DLP exited politics in the mid-1970s, Menzies became a Liberal voter again until his death in 1978.

The Liberal Party today is adversely affected by the political legacy of its former prime ministers who defected or who campaigned against the party – Gorton, Fraser and Turnbull. In March 1971, Fraser effectively brought down Gorton – which led to a lifelong bitterness on Gorton’s part. He quit the Liberal Party in 1975 and unsuccessfully contested an ACT Senate seat at the December 1975 election for the breakaway Liberal Movement.

Gorton, who died in 2002, never spoke to Fraser after 1971. At Gorton’s state funeral in Sydney, Tom Hughes QC, who delivered the eulogy, said to Fraser in the congregation that he had made a “grave misjudgment” in 1971. Former Liberal parliamentarian Michael Baume described this as a 13th-round knockout punch in a 12-round title fight.

Howard served Fraser loyally when he was prime minister between November 1975 and March 1983. But the latter did not return the favour when Howard was prime minister. In his book Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs (MUP, 2010), which he co-wrote with Margaret Simons, the former prime minister criticised the Liberal Party. Fraser, who resigned from the Liberal Party in 2009 when Abbott became leader, gave the impression that he had become a Greens voter towards the end of his life.

Then there is Turnbull who, it seems, has remained a Liberal Party member. In his book Ego: Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party’s Civil War, journalist Aaron Patrick documents the large number of interventions made by the former Liberal Party prime minister in the public debate leading up to the election this year that were hostile to then prime minister Morrison.

A fair interpretation of Turnbull’s comments during this period – often given as an exclusive interview to Fran Kelly or Patricia Karvelas on ABC Radio National Breakfast – is that he was campaigning against the Liberals. In December last year, Turnbull said it was a “very, very healthy development” that independents were proposing to run against endorsed Liberal Party candidates in Liberal-held seats. This movement soon metamorphosed into the teal independents. They ended up defeating four Liberals who had supported Turnbull remaining as prime minister during the Liberal Party leadership spill in August 2018 – Jason Falinski, Josh Frydenberg, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman.

In August 2007, however, Turnbull accused businessman Geoff Cousins, who had expressed an intention of running as an independent against him in Wentworth, of “bullying political pressure” by a man of wealth. Fancy that.

There is no doubt that the teal independents have struck a blow against the Liberal Party – but not Labor and the Greens – with more damage likely to follow. In the short term, at least, it seems the current plight of the Liberal Party can be reversed only by a poor performance from Labor.

There are no signs at this stage that the Albanese government will make the political errors such as those of the governments led by Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. But democratic politics can change rapidly, which could contribute to a Liberal Party revival.