Rishi Sunak today attempted to draw a line under the Elgin Marbles row with Greece as he insisted he was focusing on ‘issues that really matter’.
The Prime Minister appeared to try and cool tensions with Athens – a day after he accused his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of ‘grandstanding’.
In the latest row over ownership of the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon sculptures, Mr Sunak this week snubbed a planned meeting with the Greek PM.
It came after Mr Mitsotakis made a fresh push for the ancient artefacts, also known as the Parthenon sculptures, to be returned to Athens from the British Museum.
The Greek premier used a BBC interview to claim keeping the 2,500-year-old sculptures in London was akin to cutting the Mona Lisa painting in half.
But the remarks enraged Mr Sunak who scrapped planned talks with Mr Mitsotakis as No10 accused the Greek PM of reneging on a vow not to discuss the issue in public.
Rishi Sunak attempted to draw a line under the Elgin Marbles row with Greece as he insisted he was focusing on ‘issues that really matter’
In the latest row over ownership of the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon sculptures, Mr Sunak this week snubbed a planned meeting with the Greek PM
Kyriakos Mitsotakis enraged Mr Sunak with his comments in a BBC interview in which he claimed keeping the sculptures in London was akin to cutting the Mona Lisa painting in half
Mr Sunak’s actions – dubbed a ‘hissy fit’ by critics – have been mocked by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who did hold talks with Mr Mitsotakis in London this week
Mr Sunak’s actions – dubbed a ‘hissy fit’ by critics – have been mocked by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who did hold talks with Mr Mitsotakis in London this week.
The Greek government has also taken a swipe at the PM, with Athens claiming Mr Sunak had ‘domestic reasons’ for his snub of Mr Mitsotakis.
They pointed to the Tory leader being ‘quite behind in the polls’ – despite Mr Sunak’s frequent attempts to ‘reset’ his premiership – ahead of the looming general election.
The PM was quizzed about the Elgin Marbles row on a visit to Guildford, Surrey, this morning, ahead of his trip to Dubai for the COP-28 climate summit.
Mr Sunak was pressed on whether the subject was worth a diplomatic row with Greece – or whether he was just seeking to create a ‘wedge issue’ with Labour.
‘I addressed this in Parliament yesterday,’ the PM said. Instead, Mr Sunak added, he was ‘focusing on the things that really matter to people’.
He said he would be talking to ‘dozens of world leaders’ at COP-28 ‘about the issues that really matter – international security, supporting Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, tackling illegal migration, or indeed climate change’.
Earlier, security minister Tom Tugendhat declined to say whether the PM was right to cancel the meeting with his Greek counterpart.
‘Look, I think my own view is that the PM had to make a decision,’ Mr Tugendhat said.
‘He’s got many, many calls on his time, and prioritising is a very difficult thing to do in No10.’
Mr Tugendhat told Sky News that Mr Mitsotakis had ‘his own domestic politics’ so ‘of course he is going to make comments like that’, in relation to his call for the Parthenon sculptures to be returned to Athens.
The PM’s teams ‘spend weeks before a meeting like this deciding what they’re going to talk about’, he said.
‘And you get to a point where, if you haven’t agreed what you’re going to talk about, frankly, maybe the meeting is not worth having,’ Mr Tugendhat added.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Sir Keir used Prime Minister’s Questions to claim Mr Sunak had tried to ‘humiliate’ Mr Mitsotakis.
‘Never mind the British Museum—it is the PM who has obviously lost his marbles,’ the Labour leader told MPs, as he accused Mr Sunak of ‘small politics’.
Mr Sunak replied: ‘Of course we are always happy to discuss important topics of substance with our allies, like tackling illegal migration or strengthening our security.
‘But when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future but to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past, it was not appropriate.
‘Furthermore, specific commitments and assurances on that topic were made to this country and then broken.’