Morale was high at the dinner held in Parliament House on Wednesday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the election of the Howard government. In respect to John Howard’s term as prime minister between March 1996 and November 2007, that is.

There was a degree of tension between Tony Abbott, Australia’s 28th prime minister, and his successor, Malcolm Turnbull.

This followed the leak, revealed in The Australian on Wednesday, indicating that the acquisition of the first new boats to replace the Collins-class submarines has been pushed back by some years from what was proposed in an earlier draft of the defence white paper.

As the various political celebrities were officially welcomed at the commencement of the function, the audible support for Abbott was louder than that for Turnbull, indicating that the leadership change last September still resonates among at least some of the Liberal Party faithful.

In his engaging speech, Howard reminded the audience that only four Liberal Party leaders had led the party to government from opposition: namely Robert Menzies in 1949, Malcolm Fraser in 1975, Tony Abbott in 2013 and Howard himself 20 years ago. This was an appropriate recognition of Abbott’s achievements.

Abbott was also praised by Howard in his address.

Howard’s point was that all four Liberal Party leaders had enjoyed extremely good relations with the Nationals (formerly Country Party). He spoke in particular of Menzies’ relationship with Jack McEwen and Fraser’s relationship with Doug Anthony.

Howard’s own close association with the Nationals’ leaders during his time as prime minister — Tim Fischer, John Anderson, Mark Vaile — was evident in the fact all three former deputy prime ministers spoke at Wednesday’s dinner. Moreover, the function was co-hosted by the Coalition parties with both Liberal Party and Nationals presidents speaking (Richard Alston and Larry Anthony respectively).

The balance in the speakers between the Coalition parties was made up by former treasurer Peter Costello, who gave a witty and insightful account, focusing on the economic achievements of the Howard government.

Fraser was the one former Liberal prime minister who was barely mentioned on the night. It was not that sort of occasion. Howard is one of those Liberals who has the tribal spirit that is widely found within the Labor Party, especially within the party’s right-wing ­faction. Graham Richardson comes to mind. He is not uncritical of his party but he always wants Labor to win.

Howard is much the same. As Australia’s second longest serving prime minister said on the ABC’s 7.30 on Tuesday, his political task in life is to ensure that the Coalition remains in government and Labor in opposition. This was not Fraser’s position.

A couple of years before he died, Fraser announced that he had not renewed his Liberal Party membership. Fraser was critical of the Howard government almost from the time it came to office. In mid-2004, during a conversation at Old Parliament House, he made it very clear to me that he would be voting for Mark Latham and Labor at the forthcoming 2004 election.

In the 2013 election, Fraser lent his support to Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ Senate candidate in South Australia. The likes of Howard and Richardson would never even think of supporting their mainstream political opponents, still less a leftist entity such as the Greens.

Howard stated his position unequivocally on Wednesday. It was a case of “The Coalition prime minister is dead; long live the ­Coalition prime minister”. In short, Howard supported Abbott. Now he supports Turnbull. It’s a case of “anyone but my principal political opponents”. Richardson would understand.

On Wednesday, Howard restated his long-established position that the Liberal Party is a broad church — comprising members of both conservative and liberal (in the British and US sense of the term) traditions.

He described the Liberal Party as the party of the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke as well as of his liberal counterpart John Stuart Mill.

It’s simply a myth, proclaimed by some members of the Canberra press gallery today, that Howard excluded small-l liberals. He cited the likes of Robert Hill, Amanda Vanstone and Turnbull. It’s also true that Abbott gave small-l liberals a job in his government. Marise Payne was not promoted into the Coalition ministry or shadow ministry by Brendan Nelson or Turnbull but was by Abbott, as human services minister.

Fraser was fond of arguing that the likes of Howard and Abbott had moved their party away from Menzies’ liberal tradition. However, as Howard documents in his bestselling book Lazarus Rising (2010), in 1951 Menzies attempted to ban the Communist Party and in 1961 opposed the decision of the Commonwealth of Nations to exclude South Africa from the ­organisation. Neither decision was the embodiment of liberalism.

Howard acknowledges that the “philosophical road map” that he brought to government was “bitterly opposed by some, but for a long time supported by more”. But he correctly mentions that supporters and opponents alike knew what he stood for: namely, a combination of “economic liberalism and social conservatism”.

The electorate also knew what Menzies and Abbott stood for. So far at least, Turnbull has not been able to identify with an unequivocal position — whether liberal or conservative or a mixture of the two. He may do so before the forthcoming election.

Howard will go down as one of the great prime ministers of the modern era, along with Menzies, Bob Hawke and, to a lesser extent, Paul Keating. On Wednesday, both Howard and Turnbull expressed the view that Costello was Australia’s greatest treasurer.

Both Howard and Costello used the occasion to defend their economic record. The former reminded the audience that his government’s legacy included a budget surplus, a Future Fund, along with adequate defence and intelligence services. Howard added that the tax cuts he and Costello introduced in 2007 were vital to halt the problem of the bracket creep that is back on the political agenda today.

No wonder morale was high among the Coalition faithful on Wednesday, despite the current political discontents and uncertainties.