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‘The Elgin Marbles should leave this northern whisky-drinking guilt-culture, and be displayed where they belong: in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles.’ This view – articulated by Boris Johnson in 1986 when he was studying classics at Oxford – is not shared by Rishi Sunak.
On Monday, the Prime Minister caused a diplomatic spat after he called off a meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, his Greek counterpart, hours before it was scheduled to take place. The reason? Mitsotakis gave an interview to the BBC in which he said the Elgin Marbles must be returned to Greece. The current situation, he added, of having some artefacts in London and the rest in Athens was akin to ‘cutting the Mona Lisa in half’.
Although Mitsotakis was stating the long-held position of the Greek government, such comments, No. 10 claims, broke an agreement between the two countries not to use the visit as a public campaign for returning the antiquities. Aides were anxious that the meeting did not turn into a repeat of Johnson’s 2021 pow-wow with Mitsotakis, when all other topics during the visit were overshadowed by briefings about the Parthenon Sculptures.
Sunak wanted to focus on boats and Gaza, but his zero-tolerance approach towards the mention of the Marbles meant that nothing was discussed at all. ‘He has a visceral reaction to people taking the piss out of Britain,’ explains an ally of the Prime Minister.
The Greek Prime Minister refused a backroom meeting with Oliver Dowden, Sunak’s deputy – citing his ‘annoyance’. His foreign minister went further, declaring that Sunak’s reaction was ‘unheard of’.