Rishi Sunak hasn’t had many wins in his short premiership. But one he could legitimately claim was being a prime minister who improved Britain’s standing in the world – drawing a line under the bumpy Brexit years and provocative style of his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
He was the prime minister who delivered the Windsor Framework, settling the standoff with the European Union over post-Brexit trading relationships in Northern Ireland. He has struck up a solid relationship with President Biden, signing the Atlantic Declaration signalling closer diplomatic, security and trade ties with the US while also hosting a successful global AI summit in London last month.
He was meant to stand for professional, grown up leadership. Then he refused to meet the Greek prime minister in what appears to be a fit of pique after Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that having the Elgin Marbles in London was like having the Mona Lisa “cut in half”.
Given all of the above – grown up leadership, resetting relations with European allies, more policy less politicking – it seemed to me a rather confusing decision that undermined the PM’s pitch. So I asked other people from across the spectrum what they thought.
One former senior diplomat described it as “ludicrous, petulant behaviour”, while a pro-Sunak minister told me it was the “wrong decision”.
Another Whitehall source said all the PM had done by cancelling the meeting was get the issue more talked about, while a senior Labour source simply told me it was “pathetic” and meant the two leaders weren’t talking about important matters of illegal migration, economy, the Middle East.
As for the Number 10 team, the matter was quite simple: the Greek prime minister had agreed not to raise the matter of returning the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures that once adorned the Acropolis in Athens publicly, and that agreement was broken. “It’s not much more complex than that.”
Now, the UK and Greek government are embroiled in a row over the matter. Greek sources insist no such assurances were made, while Downing Street say they were.
Mr Mitsotakis has been publicly demanding that the entire frieze be returned to Athens since he took office five years ago. He has been exploring a deal with the British Museum (where the Elgin Marbles are housed) to see if the two sides might arrange a loan of the sculptures, given that the British Museum is legally banned by an act of parliament from returning the Parthenon Sculptures permanently.
At a time when the PM needs to work with European partners to help his domestic agenda around cutting immigration, snubbing the Greek leader over comments he made on the Elgin Marbles in a TV interview certainly shifted the news agenda off his own domestic difficulties over record migration numbers and the open Conservative Party row over how to fix it.
But it also undermines his effort to appear like a grown-up partner on a global stage. It was his predecessors, Mr Johnson and Ms Truss, who liked to pick fights with European partners to get a favourable headline or two, and this incident might leave some allies wondering if the current incumbent really is cut from a different cloth.