Sunak says retaining Parthenon marbles is matter of law as he denies ‘hissy fit’

<span>Photograph: Chris Jackson/PA</span>
Photograph: Chris Jackson/PA

Rishi Sunak has denied having a “hissy fit” over the Parthenon marbles row and has said they cannot be returned to Greece “as a matter of law”.

The prime minister this week accused his Greek counterpart of using a trip to London to “grandstand” over the issue of the ancient Greek sculptures.

Sunak cancelled a planned meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London on Tuesday because he said the Greek prime minister had reneged on a promise not to use the trip as an opportunity to advocate for the sculptures’ return.

The former Conservative chancellor George Osborne, now the chair of the British Museum, said on his Political Currency podcast he had been trying to find out what lay behind Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting, examining theories including that it was a “dead cat” strategy to deflect from the government’s woes around immigration policy and an attempt to impress “red wall” voters.

“Then you ask the question, is it just petulance? Is it just having a bit of a hissy fit?” He added: “It’s because he [Mitsotakis] had met [the Labour leader] Keir Starmer the day before.”

On the plane to Cop28, the prime minister said he was “focused on delivering for people on the things they care about” and that his position on the marbles had not changed.

“It’s very clear as a matter of law the marbles can’t be returned and we’ve been unequivocal about that,” he told reporters. “I think the British Museum’s website itself says that in order for the loans to happen the recipient needs to acknowledge the lawful ownership of the country that’s lending the things and I think the Greeks have not suggested that they are in any way shape or form willing to do that.

“Our view and our position on that is crystal clear: the marbles were acquired legally at the time.”

Osborne has pledged to continue working on an exchange deal to allow the marbles to be displayed in Greece. He said he believed Keir Starmer’s position on the issue could enable negotiations to take place between the two countries under a Labour government.

A spokesperson for Starmer said his potential premiership would “not spend any time legislating on this matter” but that it “wouldn’t stand in the way” of a mutually beneficial agreement between the museum and Athens.

The Labour leader criticised Sunak during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, accusing him of having “lost his marbles”.

Starmer said: “The Greek prime minister came to London to meet him, a fellow Nato member, an economic ally, one of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration. But instead of using that meeting to discuss those serious issues he tried to humiliate him and cancelled at the last minute.”

The 1963 British Museum Act prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection, a position in law that Osborne said would ensure Greece would have to return the sculptures after any exchange.