Rishi Sunak cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart for going back on assurances that he would not use a UK visit as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, Downing Street has said.
The diplomatic spat between Sunak and Kyriakos Mitsotakis came after an interview with the BBC on Sunday in which the Greek prime minister described the retention of the marbles at the British Museum as being akin to the Mona Lisa being cut in half, language which the Greek government has used before.
A spokesperson for Sunak said he felt any talks were likely to be “dominated” by the row over the sculptures, which have been in the museum since 1832.
“There were assurances that it would not be used as a public platform. We saw this happen with a previous visit with a previous prime minister in 2021. The assurances were not adhered to, and so the prime minister took the decision,” the spokesperson said.
“Obviously, ministers and leaders are able to express views as they wish, but I think the prime minister feels that if assurances are made as part of agreements in advance of a meeting … they should be adhered to and I think that’s what the public would expect in any walk of life.”
The cancellation of the meeting meant Sunak and Mitsotakis were unable to discuss a range of issues including migration policy and the crisis in the Middle East.
Mitsotakis, who said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” by the abrupt cancellation, chose to fly home rather than attend a substitute meeting the UK had offered with Britain’s deputy prime minster, Oliver Dowden.
Dowden has taken a hardline stance on the marble, in line with other Conservative MPs, telling a debate last year: “It is important that we protect our institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum from a barrage of restitution claims.”
Downing Street was concerned that the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece could open a “slippery slope” to the return of other contested artefacts, Sunak’s spokesperson added.
A proposal is under discussion between Greek officials and George Osborne – the chair of the British Museum – that would allow the sculptures to return to Athens in exchange for Greek treasures being displayed in London.
Greek officials who travelled with Mitsotakis to London strongly denied any suggestion that a pledge had been made to ignore the issue of the sculptures.
“We have many topics to discuss,” said Tasos Hatzivasiliou, a New Democracy MP, adding that the Parthenon sculptures issue was one of many the Greek contingent had planned to raise in talks with Sunak. “The agenda was not a single-issue one, nor is it going to be. But unfortunately what are the British doing? They, alone, are politicising the whole affair.”
Hatzivasiliou, who advises the Greek leader on international affairs and was part of the visiting team, downplayed the role of the UK government in negotiations over the antiquities, saying Athens’ counterpart in the discussions was the British Museum, home of the “exiled” artworks for the past two centuries, not Downing Street.
The Greek development minister, Adonis Georgiadis, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme on Tuesday: “It was a bad day. I think your prime minister, when he will have a second thought, he will understand that the Greek prime minister is an important person.
“I have to be very honest – what Kyriakos Mitsotakis mentioned in his interview is not just his own opinion. It is the single opinion of 11 million Greek people and I think many more million people around the world.”
Labour accused Sunak of “picking a fight with a Nato ally” for the sake of a headline when he should been talking about the economy, immigration and the Middle East.
The former Conservative foreign secretary, William Hague, told Times radio that the cancellation of the meeting was “not a great advert for diplomacy” and that there “must have been some other understanding or assumption about the basis on which the meeting would proceed.”
The sculptures were removed from Greece in circumstances that remain controversial at the behest of Lord Elgin, then the UK’s ambassador to the Ottoman court. The antiquities were shipped to London between 1801 and 1804 and sold to the British Museum in 1816.