Government officials have discussed legal ways they could block any export of the Elgin marbles, Sky News understands, as Downing Street cancelled a meeting between the prime minister and his Greek counterpart.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due to meet Rishi Sunak in London on Tuesday morning, but Number 10 cancelled on Monday evening – sending the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden in Mr Sunak’s place.
Sky News has been told that at one point the government discussed blocking the export licence, which some believe necessary to send them back.
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The plan for a temporary loan is being pushed by George Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum and former Tory chancellor.
One senior Tory said that Mr Osborne was drawing up a “sordid deal” that makes his position “untenable”, adding “he should go”.
Earlier today, Number 10 said Mr Sunak would not support any changes to the current laws that prevent the marbles from being permanently returned to Greece – and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.
Mr Osborne, the British Museum chairman, has previously said he is exploring ways for the marbles to be displayed in Greece, possibly involving a loan deal in which part of the sculptures would be sent to Athens.
However, the plans are reportedly backed by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader.
The Financial Times has reported that Sir Keir, who represents the Holborn & St Pancras constituency – home to the British Museum – was due to tell Mr Mitsotakis that Labour will not change the law regarding the marbles at a meeting on Monday.
The 1963 British Museum Act prevents the institution giving away objects from its collection except in very limited circumstances.
“We’re sticking with the existing law, but if a loan deal that is mutually acceptable to the British Museum and the Greek government can be agreed, we won’t stand in the way,” one person close to Sir Keir told the paper.
The marbles – also known as the Parthenon Sculptures – were taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the 1800s, although some remained in their country of origin.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Mr Mitsotakis said “the answer is very clear” when it comes to the sculptures, and they “do look better in the Acropolis Museum”.
He added: “It’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum, do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way?”
The Greek leader posted on social media on Monday evening: “The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.
“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.”
Asked about the matter earlier on Monday – before the change in the meeting was announced – Mr Sunak’s spokesperson said: “We have no plans to change our approach, and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.
“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”