Analysis: Government sees opportunity in Elgin Marbles spat, but opponents claim desperation

The dispute over the historical artefacts was an entirely avoidable row that has embarrassed Tory MPs

A diplomatic row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles, and the UK Government is already hoping to make it part of a culture war.

In the past 24 hours, Rishi Sunak cancelled a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after being irritated by comments he made during an appearance on the BBC.

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Mr Mitsotakis had argued the Parthenon Sculptures, which are at the British Museum, should be returned to Athens – a view long-held by the Green Government, and one that did not come as a surprise.

A row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles.A row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles.
A row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles.

However, in expressing it, he is said to have “irritated” the Prime Minister, who then refused to meet his Nato ally, amid claims there was a promise in place not to mention the issue. This has been denied by Greece.

This was an entirely avoidable row, and one seemingly based on opposing views that everyone already knew. This morning Tory MPs, not for the first time with Mr Sunak, are questioning his judgement, wondering how what should be a formality has gone wrong.

One MP told me this morning it made them look “weak”. Another asked how Mr Sunak could be trusted on the world stage if he was “too thin-skinned for basic democracy”. It does not bode well for the Prime Minister the response from members of his own party are not discernible from those of the Labour party.

For their part, the Government was quick to paint this as Mr Sunak looking strong and standing up for British interests, with Downing Street briefing the comments were inappropriate. They also attacked Sir Keir Starmer for meeting with Mr Mitsotakis, arguing it showed Britain’s historical artefacts could not be trusted with Labour.

The problem is, political leaders do meet with people they disagree with, and trying to make this part of the culture war is harder when the decision blindsided even members of Mr Sunak’s Cabinet. It’s also of note that Lord Vaizey, who chairs the advisory board of the Parthenon Project dedicated to returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, is a former Tory minister who served under David Cameron.

Labour has never expressed support for the return of the Elgin Marbles, instead saying it would not block a loan agreement if two parties reached one independently.

The view in Westminster today is one of surprise at Mr Sunak, and not a little embarrassment, with MPs unsure if this is an attempt to pass off the argument Labour can’t be trusted, or if that’s just a cover for a diplomatic gaffe.

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Just what a mess this is for ministers has already been seen, with transport secretary Mark Harper telling broadcasters it was a "matter of regret" that no meeting would take place and, when asked if the treatment was rude, inviting viewers to make up their own mind.

The meeting could have been two Nato allies gathering for a discussing and photo shoot, knowing there was one area of disagreement, but that it wouldn’t stop them doing business. Instead, the Greek government has claimed Britain's attitude shows no respect for the prime minister or Greece.

This may score points off Labour, but the mood among Tories this morning is more despair than triumph.



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