The Greek government has suggested Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to scrap talks with the country’s leader over a row about the Elgin Marbles was politically motivated.
A spokesman for the Greek prime minister said there were “domestic reasons” for the cancellation of Tuesday’s meeting and pointed to Mr Sunak being “quite behind in the polls” ahead of a likely general election next year.
Downing Street has denied the Greek claim.
It comes after No 10 said Mr Sunak decided to ditch face-to-face talks with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis after feeling he had rowed back on “reassurances” that he would avoid using his visit to the UK as a “public platform” to demand the return to Athens of the Elgin Marbles.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Sunak had become concerned that any bilateral conversation with Mr Mitsotakis would be “dominated” by the issue of the ancient artefacts, which are also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, following comments made by the Greek leader in an interview on Sunday.
Mr Mitsotakis told the BBC the current situation with the marbles was akin to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.
Greece has long demanded the return of the historic works, which were removed by Lord Elgin from Athens in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the Elgin Marbles have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than 200 years.
The remainder of the friezes are in a purpose-built museum in Athens.
The debate about whether to return items brought to the UK during the time of the British Empire has become a battleground in the so-called culture wars that Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party has been accused of attempting to exploit.
Dimitris Tsiodras, director of the Greek prime minister’s press office, said on Tuesday that Mr Mitsotakis was angry at what he called a “British misstep”.
But the spokesman insisted talks about the “reunification” of the sculptures would continue.
He said: “I don’t think the effort stops there.
“Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and (Mr Sunak) is quite behind in the polls… but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing.”
Mr Sunak’s Conservatives are about 20 points behind Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in opinion polls ahead of an election that must take place by January 2025.
Asked whether the diplomatic spat with Greece was politically motivated, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “No. I’ve spoken at length about the reasons for the meeting not going ahead.
“Those are the reasons, there is nothing more to it.”
No 10 said it had been keen to avoid a repeat of Mr Mitsotakis’s visit to the UK in 2021, when the Government felt he had used the trip as an opportunity to publicly press for the marbles’ return.
Mr Mitsotakis, ahead of that occasion two years ago when Boris Johnson was prime minister, had said the 17 figures in London “belong in the Acropolis Museum”.
Ahead of this week’s visit, Downing Street confirmed it “sought assurances” that similar public pronouncements would not be made but Mr Mitsotakis still went on to make his Mona Lisa comparison.
The comments annoyed No 10, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman telling reporters that Mr Sunak decided it would “not be productive” to go ahead with a meeting that would likely be overshadowed by the debate.
The PA news agency understands that the Greek side disagrees with No 10’s characterisation of the situation.
Athens’ view is that the idea that Mr Mitsotakis would come to London and not respond to a question about the marbles in an interview is nonsense.
But Downing Street said Sunday’s comments had put the marbles “front and centre of the debate”.
“Obviously it is up to the Greek government the media they choose to do but, when they have provided reassurances that they will not seek to publicise this, we don’t think those assurances were adhered to,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman said.
No 10 said it offered talks with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead, but that goes against the usual protocol which would normally mean a visiting prime minister would meet Mr Sunak, rather than a more junior minister.
In a strongly-worded statement on Monday, a spokesman for the Greek prime minister’s office said Mr Mitsotakis was “disappointed” and “extremely surprised” that his British counterpart had cancelled their meeting “at the 11th hour”.
A Greek source said they were particularly confused by Mr Sunak’s decision given that preventing migrant sea crossings — one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities — was high on the agenda.
British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former Tory chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.
But Downing Street made clear that Mr Sunak continues to see the museum as the rightful place for them and that a loan cannot take place without the Greeks accepting the museum as the legal owner.
Ministers do not have plans to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection, No 10 confirmed this week.
Labour leader Sir Keir met Mr Mitsotakis on Monday about the same time as his team was informed a meeting with the Prime Minister was off.
A readout of their talks did not mention the marbles but the Opposition leader had indicated that, while he would tell the Greek premier a Labour government would not change the law, he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable.