Rishi Sunak snubbed the Greek prime minister over the Elgin Marbles in order to ramp up Tory support ahead of a general election next year, Athens has suggested.
A spokesman for Kyriakos Mitsotakis suggested Mr Sunak had “domestic reasons” for cancelling their meeting on Tuesday, pointing out that he is behind in the polls.
He said Mr Mitsotakis had been angered by what he considered to be a “British misstep”, but insisted talks about the “reunification” of the Parthenon sculptures would continue.
It comes as allies of the Greek premier pushed back against Downing Street’s claim that Greece acted in bad faith by publicly lobbying for the return of the Marbles during a trip to London.
No 10 accused Greece of rowing back on “explicit assurances” that they would not use the visit to Britain as a public platform to campaign on the “long-settled” issue, but Athens denied that Mr Mitsotakis agreed not to raise the subject in public.
Dimitris Tsiodras, the director of the Greek prime minister’s press office, suggested the snub had been politically motivated.
“Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and he is quite behind in the polls… but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing,” he said. Downing Street denied the claim.
While Mr Sunak opted to cancel his talks with Mr Mitsotakis, Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, and George Gerapetritis, his Greek counterpart, spoke on the fringes of a NatoO ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, according to Greek diplomats.
They were said to have agreed that “there is need for cooperation to safeguard the Greece-UK bilateral relations and tackle the common challenges”, with the Greek minister noting the disagreement on the principle of who should house the sculptures.
Mr Sunak pulled out of the bilateral meeting at the 11th hour after Mr Mitsotakis used a BBC interview on Sunday to make an impassioned case for repatriating the Marbles, in which he said keeping them in Britain was like tearing the Mona Lisa in half.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said he felt it would not be “productive” to hold a meeting dominated by “ancient grievances”.
The spokesman added: “When requesting a meeting with the Prime Minister this week, the Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to re-litigate long-settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures.
“Given those assurances were not adhered to, the Prime Minister felt it would not be productive to hold a meeting dominated by that issue, rather than the important challenges facing Greek and British people.”
The spokesman said the Government was “disappointed” that the Greeks chose not to accept an alternative invitation to meet Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister.
Mr Sunak is understood to have personally called off the meeting. One senior government source said: “It’s a respect thing.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At One on Tuesday, Adonis Georgiadis, the Greek development minister, said: “It was a mistake. It was a bad day for our relationship. I hope that we will find a way out soon.”
Tahir Shah, the head of the Scheherazade Foundation, a British non-profit that has been working to return treasures from the British Museum to their countries of origin, said the Marbles were the “Holy Grail of the repatriation business”.
He said he was “flummoxed” by Mr Sunak’s decision to call off the meeting, warning that it would “damage Britain’s relation and Britain’s reputation with the wider world”.
“To me it was like something out of Yes, Minister or Monty Python,” he told The Telegraph. “This was a golden opportunity to push diplomatic relations forward in the most speculator way, but instead what Sunak’s team did, it’s what an eight-year-old kid would do in a playground.”
Challenged on whether it looked petty for Mr Sunak to allow the Marbles row to get in the way of talks on key issues such as migration, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We understand, and have heard on a number of occasions, Greece’s position on the Marbles.
“They are welcome and able to make those positions known to us in private, as they have done before.”