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Rishi Sunak cancels meeting with Greek leader as row erupts over Elgin Marbles

Visitors to the British Museum inspect the Elgin Marbles
The Government's position is that the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here, a senior Conservative source said - MATTHEW FEARN/PA

Rishi Sunak has cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister after a diplomatic row flared up over the future of the Elgin Marbles.

Mr Sunak had been set to meet Kyrios Mitsotakis in Downing Street for wide-ranging talks over migration and other topics, but pulled out at the last minute.

The Telegraph understands that the British Prime Minister was left frustrated after the Greek leader publicly lobbied for a change to the UK Government stance on the Marbles on the BBC on Sunday.

One senior Government source said: “It’s a respect thing.”

Mr Sunak is understood to have personally called off the meeting.

Instead the Greek leader is now expected to meet Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister.

A senior Conservative source said: “It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.

“Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation.”

Sources with knowledge of the Greek prime minister’s itinerary said he was formally told at 6pm on Monday that the meeting was off, but had learnt an hour earlier that it was going to be cancelled, about the same time that he was meeting Sir Keir Starmer and a Labour delegation to discuss Labour’s views on returning the sculptures to Athens.

The sources said Downing Street gave no official reason for the meeting being cancelled and that Mr Mitsotakis was “baffled” by the decision.

He had toned down his demands over the Parthenon sculptures since his last visit to the UK, when he told Boris Johnson that Britain had stolen them and should give them back.

He has now “parked” the issue of ownership, and wanted to talk about the sort of loan deal that Sir Keir has proposed.

Greek sources said Mr Mitsotakis was prepared to “lean into” proposals on controlling migration, but now assumes that comments he has made about the Elgin Marbles ahead of the proposed meeting have upset Mr Sunak.

A spokesman for the Greek premier said: “The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour. Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and co-operation, and the Greek government is extremely surprised by this decision.

“The prime minister was looking forward to discussing a range of topics of mutual interest including the Israel/Gaza conflict, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration, and of course the Parthenon sculptures.”