Rishi Sunak’s Elgin Marbles stand shows he is getting tough

Greek Prime Minister calls for return of Elgin Marbles

Rishi Sunak has clearly decided to beware of Greeks seeking gifts after refusing to meet Greece’s prime minister today due to his blatant desire to hijack their meeting with demands to hand back the Elgin Marbles.

The sudden snub means Kyriakos Mitsotakis goes back to Athens earlier than expected having just met Keir Starmer, who no doubt relished his chance to meet another EU leader.

The Elgin Marbles row has raged for over 200 years, as Greece has argued ever since the 1800s that they were stolen from the Parthenon. The Greeks have never missed an opportunity to make this case, so why has the Prime Minister reacted so sharply?

It is hard to see Sunak’s stand for the Elgin Marbles as a decisive election-winning gambit, as polls suggest the general public is not as passionate about these sculptures as many in Westminster.

In fact, research by YouGov suggests people are more likely to sit on the fence over this debate than say they should stay in the British Museum.

The polling for the Parthenon Project found even Tory and Brexit voters were more likely to back their surrender to Athens at 38 and 41 per cent respectively, than to keep them in London.

Nonetheless, the Tories are using this row to reinforce the contrast they want to draw between Sunak and Starmer.

“Keir Starmer’s lost his marbles if he thinks people want a leader who surrenders British Museum artefacts to Europe,” Tory HQ declared in a social media message. “They belong here. Under Rishi Sunak they’ll stay here.”

For good measure, they accuse the Labour leader of wanting to “surrender British culture”.

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The Elgin Marbles row will not decide the next election, but the Tories will hope it is one of the many episodes they can highlight to hammer away at the Labour leader and chip away at his poll lead.

They know that voters might not be frightened of Sir Keir in the same way they were by Jeremy Corbyn, but doubts linger in voters’ minds about whether he has the strength to tackle the challenges of national leadership.

The Labour leader has had some painful struggles recently, such as his attempt to corral his party behind a clear line on the Israel-Hamas war. At other times, he prefers to retreat behind platitudes such as “make Brexit work” than to spell out his alternative.

For the Tories to succeed in this test of strength, Sunak will have to step up to the plate with a robust response to whatever comes his way.

We know many issues will be bigger than the Greeks trying to get their hands on the Elgin Marbles, such as the migration crisis.

Sunak has taken an uncompromising line by pledging to do “whatever it takes” to get the Rwanda scheme up and running, raising the prospect of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights in order to make this flagship migration scheme work.

However, his ministers have wavered in their own rhetoric – with new Home Secretary James Cleverly bemusing Tory backbenchers by suggesting Rwanda was not the “be all and end all” then insisting it was “incredibly important”.

The Prime Minister has indicated his desire to see the first flights take off to Rwanda next Spring, so time is short. Legal experts warn that no legislation will be able to stop the European judges from meddling again, which leaves Sunak with the prospect of having to cave into their orders or take the tough action necessary to keep his word.

If Sunak can tackle subjects like migration with the same strength he has stood up for the Elgin Marbles, he has every chance of success.

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