George Osborne has suggested Rishi Sunak may have thrown a “hissy fit” in the row over the Elgin Marbles because the Greek prime minister met Sir Keir Starmer before him.
Mr Osborne, who is chairman of the British Museum, speculated the whole affair could have been triggered because the Prime Minister objected to Kyriakos Mitsotakis holding talks with the Labour leader the day before he was due in Downing Street, rather than by a dispute over the Parthenon sculptures themselves.
The former chancellor also said he would continue to explore a potential “exchange deal” with Athens regardless of whether Mr Sunak is willing to engage with the Greek premier. He said there was a “50:50” chance the Marbles will be loaned back to Athens.
The long-running row over the rightful ownership of the sculptures escalated this week when Mr Sunak accused Mr Mitsotakis of acting in bad faith by publicly lobbying for their return during a trip to the UK.
No 10 said the Greek leader’s intervention broke a promise not to “re-litigate” the matter, prompting an angry denial from Athens, which accused Mr Sunak of playing electoral games.
Mr Osborne said he had heard “various theories” about the reasons for the flare up, with some speculating it was a “dead cat strategy” – a plan to distract from the Tory row over migration.
“Then you ask the question, 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 Keir Starmer the day before,” he said.
Talks over Elgin Marbles can continue ‘whether Sunak meets Greek PM or not’
Looking ahead, Mr Osborne said he will press on with talks about whether the antiquities could “spend part of their time in Athens and part of their time in London”, with “Greek treasures coming our way in return”.
Speaking on Political Currency, the podcast he hosts with Ed Balls, Mr Osborne added: “We can go on doing it whether Rishi Sunak meets the Greek prime minister or not.”
Athens will be reluctant to agree to any loan deal that involves acknowledging British ownership of the Marbles, as it has always maintained they were stolen by Lord Elgin in an example of imperialist plundering.
Asked if he thought he could succeed in striking an agreement with the Greeks, Mr Osborne said: “Well, you know, I would say it’s 50:50. I mean, there’s a reason why for 200 years people have been arguing about this.”
He said it was clear now that “we’re not going to get any particular support from the Conservative Government”.
But he highlighted how Labour said it “supported the British Museum’s efforts” without seeking to change the law, which prevents the institution from permanently returning the sculptures to Athens.
Earlier on Thursday Mr Sunak sought to draw a line under the week’s events, a day after accusing the Greek prime minister of grandstanding.
He insisted he was focusing on issues that mattered to voters and refused to say more on the dispute.
The Prime Minister had been due to meet Mr Mitsotakis on Tuesday but pulled the invitation just hours before the talks were set to take place after the Greek leader used a BBC interview to claim that keeping the Marbles in Britain was equivalent to tearing the Mona Lisa in half.
Greece appeared keen to dampen the flames on Wednesday after an increasingly bitter tit-for-tat, with a senior government spokesman saying: “In the spirit of the good, long-standing relations between the two countries, which we intend to preserve, we have nothing more to add on this matter.”
Sunak’s behaviour ‘un-British’, claims the EU
Meanwhile, the European Union weighed in to criticise the UK’s position, claiming Mr Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting with his Greek counterpart at the 11th hour was “as un-British as it gets”.
Mr Osborne said there is a reason “why no one’s found a solution” to the problem, but stressed he is “working hard with the Greek government” to try and sort it out.
He added: “Who knows? I think if there’s goodwill we’ll get a breakthrough. But you know, as I say, we don’t want the law changed. And so we don’t need either the Conservative Prime Minister or the Labour leader to weigh in particularly.”
Whatever his reasons for cancelling the talks, Mr Osborne said Mr Sunak had opened the door to a “pretty devastating line of attack” from Sir Keir at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“He should be doubling down on being the serious person who of course meets another European leader when they’re in town to discuss things like Ukraine or the energy crisis or migration, all of which Greece is relevant to,” he said.
“And it just shows again that they’re not focused on delivering a coherent strategy week after week after week, which is the Conservatives’ only chance of getting back into this political fight.”