TOBIAS Ellwood has hit out at Brexit-backing MPs for "holding the Prime Minister hostage".

Mr Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East, said he respected "many individuals" associated with Eurosceptic think tank the European Research Group (ERG), but the informal faction was derailing attempts to secure a Brexit deal and could cost the Tories the next election.

"My concern is that one group among many others, the ERG, is acting as such a dominant force and taking advantage of the minority government," he told the Echo.

"They are acting as a party within a party, it is very concerning.

"They are acting as a block, holding the Prime Minister hostage, and I believe this needs to be checked.

"It is they who called for Brexit, it is their project and we are close to not completing a deal by March 30 thanks to them."

The ERG provides data and studies to MPs who subscribe. Its chairman is Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mid Dorset and North Poole MP Michael Tomlinson was its deputy chairman in 2016. Christchurch MP Sir Christopher Chope has been a subscriber.

Mr Ellwood said the group, like other informal factions within the party, had made "important contributions" to its ideology, however he was appealing to them to back the Prime Minister and a deal "which unites the country but honours the outcome of the referendum".

"I am proud to have joined a party that has a wide appeal, it is what allows us not just to have a base but to seek support from a wide spectrum of the political landscape," he said.

"I'm not saying the ERG should shut up, they have made important contributions to Tory thinking, but no one group should wield power and influence. They do not speak for the party.

"If they are allowed to continue in this way they will act as an anchor on the party being able to modernise and advance sensible forward-thinking policies, and that will have consequences at the next general election."

The MP and Defence Minister said there was a long-running rift in the party, calling it a "struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party".

"I want to be in a party that is modern, vibrant, outward looking and inclusive with a wide appeal to the next generation," he said.

He said the "compassionate conservatism of David Cameron" was an example of this, and compared the ERG with the Tea Party movement in America, which he said had marginalised the Republicans and "probably contributed to someone outside politics, Donald Trump, getting elected".