DEFENCE minister and Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood has doubled down on his criticism of the European Research Group (ERG).

The Tory party faction, based around a pro-Brexit think tank, counts several of Mr Ellwood's Dorset colleagues as supporters.

On Thursday ERG members abstained from a vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal plans, handing the Government a defeat, to the fury of party loyalists.

Mr Ellwood said: “They caused this tonight and they are acting as a party within a party and that is frustrating.

"There is a deal to be decided, there is still work to be done, and yet tonight we see the ERG halting the Government, not supporting the Conservative Party."

"That is not necessary and it’s also provocative.”

ERG members had expressed fears that by voting to back the PM they would be tacitly endorsing the removal of no-deal as an option. Among those abstaining were Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns and South Dorset's Richard Drax. Christchurch MP Sir Christopher Chope was one of five Tory MPs to vote against the Government.

Poole's Robert Syms and Mid Dorset and North Poole MP Michael Tomlinson both backed the PM's plan.

Sir Christopher and Mr Tomlinson have been closely associated with ERG, and the latter was the group's deputy chairman back in 2017. Mr Burns and Mr Drax have backed its cause, which is thought to command the support of around a quarter of Tory MPs.

The faction is calling for changes to the PM's deal, putting a fixed time limit on how long the UK might remain in any form of customs union or single market with the EU.

Mr Tomlinson, when deputy for the ERG, put forward its world view in an article on website Conservative Home. He said the "sclerotic" EU had taken more than eight years to secure a free trade deal with a willing partner, Canada, and the UK should be free to seek such deals elsewhere.

"The most immediate benefit to Britain of free trade would be reduced cost to British consumers," he said.

The barrister said "in any negotiation you have to be ready to walk away with no deal, this was a formative lesson I learned when negotiating as a lawyer".

He said claims Britain needed a deal "at any cost" were "the best way to secure the worst deal".

"We don’t want to revert to World Trade Organisation most favoured nation trading status – but, if we are forced, then so be it."