SINCE its formation in 1944, the Liberal Party has won office from Labor on three occasions. Robert Menzies defeated Ben Chifley in 1949, Malcolm Fraser prevailed over Gough Whitlam in December 1975 and John Howard vanquished Paul Keating in March 1996.

Menzies offered an alternative to Chifley’s infatuation with socialism. Fraser opposed Whitlam’s obsession with spending, taxing and borrowing. And Howard presented Keating as being preoccupied with what he termed the politically correct agenda of inner-city elites.

Fraser’s position on economics and foreign policy has changed over the years. But he opposed Whitlam from a right-of-centre, or politically conservative, position. This was the stance adopted by his predecessor Menzies and his successor Howard. Left-of-centre, or moderate, Liberal leaders have done poorly at the polls. John Gorton hung on to office in 1969 but suffered a large swing against him, while Billy Snedden, Andrew Peacock and John Hewson lost elections in 1974, 1990 and 1993 respectively.

Now Malcolm Turnbull has been deposed, albeit by the narrowest of margins, in a partyroom ballot. It is possible that Turnbull could have prevailed over Tony Abbott if he had attended a scheduled fund-raiser in Sydney on Friday instead of choosing to be interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report and if he had elected to take his dogs for a long walk on Sunday morning rather than choosing to be interviewed by Laurie Oakes on the Channel 9 Sunday program.

There is little doubt that some of Turnbull’s parliamentary colleagues were disturbed by the vehemence of his public criticisms of senior Liberals Nick Minchin and Abbott. So much so that Turnbull’s aggressive performances may have been the difference between a close win and a narrow loss.

The significant vote in the Liberal party room yesterday turned on the motion about the Rudd Government’s emission trading scheme. By 54 votes to 29, Liberal Party members and senators – in a unique secret ballot on a policy issue – decided to refer the ETS to a Senate committee. They agreed that, if this tactic was not successful, the ETS legislation in the Senate should be defeated outright.

Turnbull’s vote in the Liberal leadership ballot was surprisingly good, in view of the circumstances. Few expected him to prevail over Joe Hockey the way he did. However, Turnbull’s ETS position was comprehensively rejected by his colleagues. About two-thirds of the parliamentary Liberal Party decided Australia should not commit to a carbon pollution reduction scheme at least until after the conclusion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

It is known that the National Party is opposed to the Prime Minister’s ETS. So when the votes of the 14 National Party members and senators are added to the 55 Liberals who supported Abbott yesterday, there is substantial support within the broad Coalition for Abbott’s ETS stance.

Abbott stated the position clearly on the eve of the ballot. Liberals were given a clear choice. They could vote to support Rudd’s ETS (Turnbull’s position) or oppose it (Abbott’s position) or take an ambivalent position and have a conscience vote in the Senate (Hockey’s position). Liberals chose the certainty of Abbott over the certainty of Turnbull and junked the ambiguity option.

It is most unlikely Abbott can lead the Coalition to victory in next year’s election. No government has been defeated in its first election since 1931 when the Labor prime minister James Scullin faced not only the impact of the Great Depression but also splits within his own party.

The essential task for Abbott is to retain support for the Coalition at the level achieved by John Howard in 2007 and, if possible, to do better than this by winning some seats. Certainly there is an electoral downside for the Coalition in opposing Rudd Labor’s ETS, especially in inner-city seats. Yet the carbon pollution reduction scheme makes it possible for the Coalition to oppose Labor on the impact which an ETS will have on energy prices and employment. Abbott’s position will have greater force if the US Congress does not support President Barack Obama’s cap-and-trade scheme.

Abbott is mocked by some journalists who disagree with his moral conservatism. However, he is a substantial figure – as a reading of his book Battlelines indicates. Moreover, unlike Turnbull, Abbott has decades of political experience.

An Opposition Leader’s lot is seldom a happy one. But Abbott has started well by asking the self-proclaimed moderate Julie Bishop to remain deputy Liberal leader and by inviting the likes of Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne to continue in their current senior roles.

Abbott is not likely to be prime minister any time soon. But he has a chance of stabilising the Coalition by shoring up its base. This would be a reasonable start for an almost accidental leader.