Rishi Sunak may have been indulging in a “hissy fit” with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis before he controversially pulled a bilateral meeting this week, a senior Conservative-turned-British Museum chair said Thursday.
George Osborne — who was Conservative chancellor from 2010-2016 — insisted the diplomatic feud that erupted between Sunak and Mitsotakis in recent days wouldn’t stop long-running talks over the future of the Parthenon Sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles in the U.K.
And he suggested Sunak’s abrupt cancellation of a meeting with the Greek prime minister — which No.10 Downing Street blamed on Mitsotakis’ fresh public plea for the return of the ancient sculptures — may have had more to do with the Tories’ dire electoral prospects.
The sculptures were removed from Athens by diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century and have been housed in the British Museum since then, despite much campaigning for their return.
London and Athens have been engaged in a fierce briefing war over the canceled visit all week, with Sunak’s No. 10 Downing Street claiming the Greek prime minister went back on a promise not to raise the issue at a bilateral — and Mitsotakis’ team fiercely contesting that.
Speaking on his podcast, Political Currency, Osborne asked of Sunak: “Is it just petulance? Is it just having a bit of a hissy fit? And, I think if that’s the reason, it’s not because Mitsotakis was going to raise the Elgin Marbles. It’s because he had met [Labour leader] Keir Starmer the day before.”
Osborne went on to say that Sunak, who leads the Conservative Party Osborne himself was once a key player in, had tried to score “cheap points” over the marbles and suggested he may be driven by frustration at power “draining away” from No. 10 Downing Street as Labour leads in the polls.
He brushed off the impact of the row on the British Museum’s own discussions with Greece over custody of the marbles. The London museum had, he said, been exploring a deal “whereby they spend part of their time in Athens and part of their time in London — and we have Greek treasures coming our way in return. And that is, I think, something worth exploring.”
He said of the diplomatic spat: “To my mind as chair of the British Museum it is all the more reason to press on with our efforts to try and reach an agreement with the Greeks.”