Whatever position people take on the long-running dispute over the ownership of the Elgin marbles, there can be little doubt that Rishi Sunak’s last-minute cancellation of a scheduled meeting with visiting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the issue is an unnecessary, foolish and snippy snub to one of Britain’s few friends in Europe.
It is thought that Sunak was irritated by Mitsotakis going public with Greece’s case for returning the marbles during an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. But even if that is the case, scrapping a bilateral meeting with a fellow centre-right elected premier is a rude and gross overreaction. And by adding insult to injury in reportedly offering a meeting with deputy PM Oliver Dowden instead, Sunak has merely poured petrol on the justified flames of wounded Greek pride.
His diplomatic gaffe merely adds to the growing impression that our Prime Minister often does not really understand this business of politics. This is after all, the same man whose answer to his government’s deep unpopularity is to ban smoking for young people and fiddle with the school curriculum on maths – as if these topics are heading the agenda of voters drinking at the Dog and Duck.
If Sunak believes that giving the finger to a friendly foreign leader is the sort of crude gesture that appeals to the most jingoistic type of patriot, then he betrays a deep misunderstanding of the British people.
Britain and Greece have been close friends and allies since Greece fought free of its occupation by the Ottoman Turks in the 1820s. The great poet Lord Byron died of fever while fighting for that cause in the independence war.