Background to Sunak's scandal with Mitsotakis and the meeting with Starmer

Mitsotakis Rishi Sunak

Yesterday afternoon, while the meeting between Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer was in progress at the Greek embassy, ​​the cell phone of the director of the Prime Minister's diplomatic office, Anna-Maria Boura, rang. After leaving the meeting room, Ms Boura heard the British ambassador to Greece, Matthew Lodge, on the other end of the phone, telling her that Mitsotakis' meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak scheduled for today at noon could not be done.

When Boura asked why the last-minute cancellation in meeting Mitsotakis occurred, Mr Lodge cited an extraordinary change in Mr Sunak's schedule following instructions from Downing Street.

Quickly, however, during this somewhat awkward communication, it became clear that the real reason for the cancellation was the annoyance of the Prime Minister's office of Great Britain over what Mitsotakis said regarding the subject of the Parthenon sculptures on BBC One on Sunday morning, a show regarded as one of the most authoritative and widely watched on politics.

The real reason for the cancellation was revealed and even caused Athens to secretly reject Downing Street's counter-proposal that Mitsotakis meet with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead of Sunak.

The meeting and the disturbance

As soon as the meeting with Starmer and his associates was finished, and Boura informed the prime minister about the developments, Mitsotakis immediately called a meeting with his close associates who accompanied him: in addition to Mrs Boura, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Giorgos Gerapetritis, his adviser Aristotelia Pelonis, the secretary of International Relations of the New Democracy Tasos Hatzivasiliou, the director of his financial office Alexis Patelis and the deputy director of the press office Christos Zografos.

According to Proto Thema, Mitsotakis was irritated but decided to participate in the debate early, clarifying his position. Therefore, a written statement was immediately drawn up without even notifying ERT of the on-camera placement, and it was distributed as an emergency.

"Greece's positions on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known. I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart, along with the major challenges of the international moment: Gaza, Ukraine, the Climate Crisis, and migration. Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of confronting arguments," underlined Mr Mitsotakis, making his annoyance with the development of things clear.

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The British leaks

At the Maximos Palace in Athens, however, they quickly realised that the "change of programme" that Downing Street had invoked was nothing more than a pretext.

And that's because the British Prime Minister's office took care to leak to the online editions of the Independent and the Evening Standard Sunak's position that he is opposed to any form of settlement for the sculptures and considers their place to be in the British Museum.

Coincidentally, the director of the Evening Standard newspaper was George Osborne, who has been president of the British Museum for three years.

In other words, the office of the British Prime Minister was expressing to the internal audience the opinion of Sunak on an issue on which he had so far had no position and which he did not say face-to-face to the Prime Minister.

The BBC interview and Starmer

The snuff box, therefore, is what bothered the British Prime Minister's Office so much to do this thing that sets Greek-British relations back quite a bit at the top level. The answer given by several sources with knowledge of the background is that Downing Street was disturbed not only by the content of the Mitsotakis interview on BBC One but also by the reproduction it received from the British press.

The likeness of the sculptures to the 'torn in two' Mona Lisa was much debated, while the announcement that he would discuss the matter with both Sunak and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer was of interest.

The Starmer parameter is, if nothing else, interesting. Sunak is in all opinion polls far behind Starmer ahead of the elections in Great Britain in January 2025.

Government sources said that the prospect of the Mitsotakis-Starmer meeting was known in Sunak's office for days. The same sources added that Mitsotakis said nothing different to all his past visits to Great Britain.

In this light, it should not be ruled out that what is perceived as unfair in Athens was an attempt by Sunak to "score" a right-wing, internal public with a low-risk issue.

Notably, Laura Kuenssberg, the journalist who interviewed the Greek prime minister on Sunday morning, wrote on Twitter yesterday that she spoke of an "huge reaction given that this has been a long running issue between the two countries..."

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However, on Saturday, the Financial Times reported that Starmer would not avoid a possible deal between the Greek government and the British Museum over the sculptures.

Also of interest is Starmer's tweet after he meets with Mitsotakis, which was posted at 9:30 p.m. (Greece time), while the Prime Minister's statement on the cancellation of the meeting with Sunak was made an hour before.

"With Labour, Britain and Greece will remain strong partners," Mr Starmer said, uploading a photo of himself shaking hands with Mitsotakis.

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak’s pro-Turkish position and defeat in the polls.

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