Theresa May has written to the three MPs who quit the Conservatives to join The Independent Group and rejected their claim she had let the party be taken over by the right-wing.
In a letter to Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, the prime minister said she still led an “open-hearted Conservative Party in the One Nation tradition”.
“I know you will not have come to your decision lightly, but I must say that I do not accept the picture you paint of our party,” she said.
“I am determined that under my leadership the Conservative Party will always offer the decent, moderate and patriotic politics that the people of this country deserve.”
May also said it was the “duty” of MPs to abide by the result of the referendum and deliver Brexit.
Soubry, Wollaston and Allen, who are pro-EU, have all been pushing for a second vote.
The trio also blasted the PM for allowing the party to be dragged to the right under her leadership as they joined the ex-Labour MPs who had set up The Independent Group.
May said she did not accept the parallel that had been drawn between her Conservative Party and “the way Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left have warped a once-proud Labour Party”.
The Tory leadership is also braced for the possibility more MPs could quit – including former education secretary Justine Greening and former attorney general Dominic Grieve.
More Labour MPs are also believed to be considering resigning from the party.
In her letter, the PM said: “The UK’s membership of the European Union has been a source of disagreement both in our party and our country for a long time. Ending that membership after four decades was never going to be easy.
“I have sought to bring people back together. Like you, I was one of the 48% of people who voted to remain in the EU — but I believe very firmly that it is the duty of all of us in parliament, particularly those of us who voted to hold the referendum and promised to abide by its result, to deliver what the majority of people voted for.
“That is what the deal the government has negotiated will do — delivering on the result of the referendum while maintaining a close economic and security relationship with our European neighbours.”
May’s letter to the Tory defectors came as Gavin Shuker, one of the ex-Labour TIG members, told HuffPost UK the group could do a confidence and supply deal if the PM agrees to a public vote on her Brexit deal.