Rishi Sunak decided to scrap talks with his Greek counterpart after it was felt a reassurance to avoid focusing on the Elgin Marbles was “not adhered to”, Downing Street said.

A meeting with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday was unexpectedly cancelled after he spoke publicly about wanting the ancient artefacts, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, returned to Athens from the British Museum.

The decision has caused a diplomatic fallout, with a source on the Greek side telling the PA news agency that Mr Mitsotakis and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at the “11th hour” cancellation.

No 10 said it felt Mr Mitsotakis had rowed back on “reassurances” that his administration would not use the UK visit as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the sculptures.

During an interview on Sunday, Mr Mitsotakis described the current situation as being akin to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

Following the comments, Mr Sunak felt any talks were likely to be “dominated” by the marbles row, according to Downing Street.

Athens has long demanded the return of the historic works, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “The UK and Greece relationship is hugely important, from our work together in Nato, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration and joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine.

Elgin Marbles
The Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles on display in the British Museum (Matthew Fearn/PA)

“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 relitigate long settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures, which would only serve to distract from those important issues outlined.

“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 Deputy Prime Minister was available to meet the Greek prime minister to discuss the wider topics and we are disappointed the prime minister opted not to take this meeting.”

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said Athens was “welcome” to make its position known on the marbles but felt “those conversations are best had in private”.

Downing Street, which has pushed back against the Greek leader’s Mona Lisa comparison, had indicated that Mr Sunak would reject pleas for the ancient Greek artefacts, on display at the British Museum in London, to be handed back.

In a strongly-worded statement on Monday, a spokesman for the Greek prime minister’s office said: “The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis made public comments about wanting the Elgin Marbles to be returned ahead of talks with Rishi Sunak (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

“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.”

A Greek source said they were particularly confused by Mr Sunak’s decision given preventing migrant sea crossings — one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities — was high on the agenda.

Mr Mitsotakis used a social media post on Monday to express “dismay” that the meeting had been cancelled “just hours before it was due to take place”.

According to an online translation, he said: “Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

While No 10 said it offered talks with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead, the usual protocol would normally mean a visiting prime minister would meet Mr Sunak, rather than a more junior minister.

Greek minister Adonis Georgiadis said Mr Sunak had made a “bad choice” in scrapping the bilateral meeting.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “I think it was not a good move to cancel the meeting with the prime minister.

“It was a mistake. It was a bad day for our relationship. I hope that we will find a way out soon.”

Mr Georgiadis said Mr Mitsotakis, in his interview arguing for the return of the marbles, had been expressing the view of the Greek people.

“Elgin stole the marbles, that is it,” he added.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman stressed Mr Sunak’s support for the law that prevents the marbles from being permanently returned and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said the Government “thinks that the museum is the right place for them.”

The official has also said that ministers have “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

Sir Keir Starmer and Labour colleagues met Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday
Sir Keir Starmer and Labour colleagues met Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday (PA)

Mr Mitsotakis did manage to meet Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK.

Sir Keir had indicated he would tell the Greek premier that a Labour government would not change the law but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the museum and the Greek government.

Labour criticised Mr Sunak’s decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is.

“The Prime Minister should have been talking about the economy, immigration, the Middle East, that’s what the country would expect from a leader but Rishi Sunak is no leader.”