No 10 said that the Greeks provided “explicit assurances” that they would not use their prime minister’s visit to Britain as a public platform to campaign on the “long-settled” issue of the Parthenon Sculptures.
But after Kyriakos Mitsotakis used a BBC interview to call for their return to Athens, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said that he felt it would not be “productive” to hold a meeting dominated by “ancient grievances” rather than “the important challenges facing Greek and British people”.
The Greeks have reportedly denied giving any such assurances about their visit.
Mr Sunak’s spokesman said that “constant attempts” to publicly “re-litigate long-settled matters” had “cast a shadow over our otherwise productive relationship with Greece”, with conversations on the matter “best had in private”.
Addressing the issue on Tuesday, after Mr Sunak cancelled talks with Mr Mitsotakis at the 11th hour, he said: “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.”
He added that 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.”
Downing Street also indicated that it does not think a loan deal is possible without Greece accepting that the British Museum is the legal owner of the sculptures.
The museum, which was given trusteeship of the Elgin Marbles in 1816, has suggested loaning the sculptures to Athens.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is understood to be open to the Marbles being lent to Athens if an agreement can be struck with the museum.
However, he is not believed to have any intention of changing the law that blocks the institution from handing the sculptures back to Greece on a permanent basis.
Mr Mitsotakis had expressed his annoyance when the meeting was called off hours before it was due to take place, while sources told local media that the move was “politically indecent”.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Greek academic claimed that Rishi Sunak is “no better than Lord Elgin”.
The Elgin Marbles were controversially removed from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, prompting a centuries-long feud with Greece.
Prof Irene Stamatoudi, a former adviser to the Greek government, claimed that Mr Sunak had needlessly created a “diplomatic incident” and that Greece’s stance had been clear for years.
She told Radio 4’s Today programme: “Rishi Sunak’s behaviour does not even come close to that of a leader of a great nation that cooperates on a number of issues, a nation that values democracy and dialogue and when needed knows how to rectify wrongs of the past.
“One would not expect the leader of this nation to just walk away.
“I’m afraid that makes Rishi Sunak look no better than Lord Elgin, who used his office at the beginning of the 1800s to dismantle the Parthenon temple and take pieces to Britain to decorate his country house.”
Prof Stamatoudi said that the Elgin Marbles should be permanently reunited with Greece’s remaining Parthenon sculptures, adding: “We cannot really discuss a loan.”
Meanwhile, Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, did not deny that the Prime Minister had snubbed Mr Mitsotakis when questioned by broadcasters, although he insisted that a meeting at a “very senior level” had been offered.
He told BBC Breakfast: “The Deputy Prime Minister offered to meet the Greek prime minister today and it proved not possible to make that happen. That’s a matter of regret. That offer was made.
“But the Government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”