Rishi Sunak has intensified his diplomatic spat with his Greek counterpart, accusing Kyriakos Mitsotakis of using his recent trip to London to “grandstand” over the issue of the Parthenon sculptures.
The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday he had cancelled a planned meeting with Mitsotakis in London on Tuesday because the Greek prime minister had reneged on a promise not to use the trip as an opportunity to advocate for the sculptures’ return.
In his first public comments since the row erupted earlier this week, Sunak openly criticised Mitsotakis, saying: “Of course we’re always happy to discuss important topics of substance with our allies, like tackling illegal migration or indeed strengthening our security.
“But when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues of the future but rather to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past, it was inappropriate.”
Speaking on Wednesday morning, Lina Mendoni, the Greek culture minister, accused the UK of showing “barbarism” in its treatment of the sculptures. “Greece is continuing to talk with the British Museum … but the sculptures are the product of theft,” she told Skai radio.
“They are in the British Museum today as the product of theft. Greece is intensifying its claim, focusing on the barbarism the sculptures suffered not only under Elgin but during their years on display [in London],” she added, referring to a number of incidents that had, she said, left the artworks damaged while under the stewardship of the British Museum. Among these was the infamous attempt in the 1930s to clean the marbles’ patina.
Downing Street said on Tuesday the decision to cancel the meeting was taken because Mitsotakis had used his visit to highlight the issue of the sculptures, which were made in the 5th century BC and removed from Athens in the early 19th century at the request of the British ambassador, Lord Elgin.
Greece has long called for their return, and regularly uses visits to the UK to further its cause.
Downing Street said this week, however, that officials had secured an agreement from Greece that Mitsotakis would not do so during his trip to London this week, during which he also met Keir Starmer.
No 10 believes Mitsotakis broke that agreement when he gave an interview to the BBC on Sunday in which he likened the relocation of the sculptures to the Mona Lisa being cut in half.
Starmer criticised Sunak during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, accusing him of having “lost his marbles”.
The Labour leader said: “The Greek prime minister came to London to meet him, a fellow Nato member, an economic ally, one of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration. But instead of using that meeting to discuss those serious issues he tried to humiliate him and cancelled at the last minute.”
Sunak responded by criticising both Starmer and Mitsotakis, saying: “When specific commitments and specific assurances on that topic were made to this country and then were broken … It may seem alien to him [Starmer], but my view is when people make promises they should keep them.”
Well-placed Greek insiders described the suggestion “commitments” had been made as “absurd”, saying not only would Mitsotakis refuse to be gagged on an issue so close to his heart but that Downing Street was aware, days before, of the talks’ agenda, which included the topic alongside Gaza, Ukraine, immigration and the climate emergency.
Despite the political row, Labour and the Conservatives have similar policies on the return of the sculptures. Both parties accept the law forbids their permanent return and say they have no plans to change the legislation.
Labour officials said, however, that if the British Museum were able to complete the kind of loan agreement advocated by its chair, George Osborne, then the party would not stand in its way.
Starmer said on Wednesday the row was another example of the prime minister’s incompetence. Starmer said: “It is ironic that he has suddenly taken such a keen interest in Greek culture when he has clearly become the man with the reverse-Midas touch.”
The Labour leader added, with reference to the recent controversy over James Cleverly’s bad language in parliament: “Everything he touches turns to … perhaps the home secretary can help me out here.”